Intelligence is not Artificial

Why the Singularity is not Coming any Time Soon And Other Meditations on the Post-Human Condition and the Future of Intelligence

by piero scaruffi
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(These are excerpts from my book "Intelligence is not Artificial")

Non-human Intelligence is Already Here

There are already many kinds of intelligence that we cannot match nor truly comprehend. Bats can avoid objects in absolute darkness at impressive speeds and even capture flying insects because their brain is equipped with a high-frequency sonar system. Migratory animals can orient themselves and navigate vast territories without any help from maps. Birds are equipped with a sixth sense for the Earth's magnetic field. Purple martins migrate from Brazil to the USA and back each year. Some animals have the ability to camouflage. The best color vision is in birds, fish, and some insects. Many animals have night vision. Animals can see, sniff and hear things that we cannot, and airports still routinely employ sniffing dogs (not sniffing humans) to detect food, drugs and explosives. And don't underestimate the brain of an insect either: how many people can fly and land upside down on a ceiling? Howard Hughes' "Sensory Exotica" (1999) and Frans de Waal's "Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?" (2016) document the amazing skills of the animals that populate our planet.

Virtually all dogs existing today are artificial living beings: they are the result of selective breeding strategies. If you think that your dog is intelligent, then you have "artificial intelligence" right at home.

Ironically, when Deborah Gordon discovered that ant colonies use a packet-switching technique very similar to the one employed by the Internet ("The Regulation of Ant Colony Foraging Activity without Spatial Information", 2012), the media wrote that ants can do what the Internet does when in fact ants have been doing it for about 100 million years: it took human intelligence 200,000 years to figure out the same system of communication devised by ant intelligence.

Summarizing, many animals have powers we don't have. We have arbitrarily decided that any skill possessed by other animals and not by humans is an inferior skill, whereas any skill possessed by humans and not by other animals is a superior skill. This leads me to wonder what will make a skill "superhuman": just the fact that it is possessed by a machine instead of an animal?

And, of course, we already built machines that can do things that are impossible for humans. The clock, invented almost a thousand years ago, does something that no human can do: keeping time. Telescopes and microscopes can see things that humans cannot see. We can only see a human-level rendition by those machines, which is equivalent to a higher intelligence explaining something in simpler terms to a lower intelligence. We cannot do what light bulbs do. We cannot touch the groove of a rotating vinyl record and produce the sound of an entire philharmonic orchestra. And, of course, one such appliance is the computer, that can perform calculations much faster than any mathematician could. Even the pre-digital calculators of the 1940s (for example, the ones used to calculate ballistic trajectories) could calculate faster than human brains. In fact, we have always been post-human, coexisting with, and relying on, and being guided by, technology that was capable of super-human feats (and there have always been philosophers debating whether that post-human condition is anti-human or pro-human).

The intelligence of both animals and tools is not called "superhuman" simply because we are used to it. We are not used to robots doing whatever it is that they will do better than us and therefore we call it "superhuman" when in fact we should just call all of these "non-human life"; and maybe "non-human intelligence" depending on your definition of "intelligence".

If a machine ever arises (and proliferates) that is alive but does things that we cannot do, it will just be yet another form of non-human life: not the first one, not the last one. Of course, there are plenty of forms of life that are dangerous to humans, mostly very tiny ones (like viruses and ticks). It comes with the territory. If you want to call it "superhuman", suit yourself.

One gene can make a huge difference in brain structure and function, as the tiny difference between the chimp's DNA and human DNA proves. Gene therapy is already here and that is indeed progressing quickly. Changing the genes of the human DNA may have consequences that are orders of magnitudes bigger than we can imagine. That is one of the reasons why i tend to believe that "superhuman" intelligence, if it comes at all, is more likely to come from synthetic biology than from computers.

There are even qualitative differences in the "intelligences" of a person as the person grows and changes. Psychologists since at least Jean Piaget have studied how the mental life of a child changes dramatically, qualitatively, from one stage in which some tasks are impossible to a new stage in which those tasks become the everyday norm: each new stage represents a "super" intelligence from the viewpoint of the previous stage. There is an age at which the child conceives little more than herself and her parents. That child's brain just cannot conceive that there are other people and that people live on a planet and that the planet contains animals, trees, seas, mountains, etc; that you have to study and work; not to mention the mind-boggling affairs of sex and where children come from; and that some day you will die. All of this emerges later in life, each stage unlocking a new dimension of understanding. (And i wonder if there is an end to this process: if we lived to be 200 years old in good health, what would be our understanding?) My intelligence is "super" compared to the intelligence that i had as a little child.

At the same time try learning languages or any other skills at the speed that children learn them. Children can do things with their minds that adults cannot do anymore: sometimes you feel that you cannot understand what their minds do, that they are little monsters. Children are superhuman too, as Alison Gopnik argues in "The Philosophical Baby" (2009). One wonders what we could achieve if we remained children all our lives (more about this later).

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