Planetary Intelligence

If I asked you about “planetary intelligence,” you might sarcastically say that there doesn’t seem to be very much of it. So, let me adjust your definition.

I came across the book, Ways of Being, which is about the different kinds of intelligence on our planet. That includes plant, animal, human, and artificial intelligence,

What does it mean to be intelligent? A typical answer to that from most people might be a discussion of people being “smart.” There might be some distinction between the knowledge ones acquires from reading and school and another kind of intelligence that seems to be natural or acquired outside school. But the focus would be on human intelligence.

Is intelligence something unique to humans? I’m sure that in centuries past, the idea that plants and even other animals could be “intelligent” wouldn’t be accepted. That has changed in the past 200 years and the much more recent advances in “artificial intelligence” have made the definition of intelligence itself much broader.

A dictionary might define intelligence as the ability to acquire and apply knowledge. Is that what plants and animals are doing when they adapt to changing ecosystems or communicate with each other? The intelligence of animals, plants, and the natural systems that surround us are being more closely studied and show us complexity and knowledge that we never knew existed.

The book’s author is James Bridle who is a technologist, artist, and philosopher who uses biology, physics, computation, literature, art, and philosophy to examine Ways of Being: Animals, Plants, Machines: The Search for a Planetary Intelligence. His goal is to find what can we learn from other forms of intelligence can make ourselves and the planet better. Maybe this new way of thinking about intelligence can even improve our technologies, societies, and even politics. Can we live better and more equitably with one another and the nonhuman world?

I listened to the book on audio and had to stop and rewind a few times. It can get pretty far out from what we normally think about intelligence.

One concept that stands out is “emergence.” That is a word used in many fields today. The shape of weather phenomena, such as hurricanes, are emergent structures. The development and growth of complex, orderly crystals within a natural environment is another example of an emergent process. Crystalline structures and hurricanes are said to have a self-organizing phase. Are they intelligent?

Water crystals forming on glass demonstrate an emergent, fractal process.

A few years ago, I read Bridle’s earlier book New Dark Age. It is indeed a dark look at the Internet, information overload, conspiracy theories, algorithms, and artificial intelligence. The latter seems to have grabbed hold of him and, though there is some optimism in the new book, his vision of AI is still dark.

While proponents of artificial intelligence still portray it as our friend or companion, AI often seems to be something to fear as it is strange in ways that seem like science fiction. Bridle doesn’t say it but AI sometimes seems to be more of “alien intelligence” than “artificial intelligence.” Not that it comes from other places in the universe, but that much like the sci-fi tales where aliens came to conquer our planet, AI might be an intelligence that will try to supplant us.

Okay, I’ll stop there because now I’m venturing into conspiracy theory land myself.

Bee Intelligence

Image by Hans Benn

A nice end-of-week, start-of-weekend story about how an intelligence test shows that bees can learn to solve tasks from seeing others solve it first.

Bees are surprisingly intelligent and researchers at Queen Mary University of London have conducted an experiment showing that bees can learn from their environment to gain a reward. Plus, they can teach other bees to do the same. It seems to be more than just copying others but they can improve upon what they are learning,

The study published in Science says that in the experiment the bees had to move a yellow ball into the center of a platform after the scientists demonstrated to the bees how to do it.

They made it look like the ball moved on its own when the researchers secretly moving it from below with a magnet. Other bees saw the ball move via a plastic bee on a stick. When the ball reached the center, the scientists added sugar water to reward the subjects.

O.J. Loukola et al., Science (2017)

O.J. Loukola et al., Science (2017)

What the bees learned is that a reward comes when the ball in in the right place. Subsequently, the bees moved the balls by themselves to get the sugar water. All this seems like we have seen trainers do with larger animals, but the bees went a step further.

When the bees were put on the platform with untrained bees, after observing the trained bees once, the untrained ones started to carry out the task, too. I know it sounds like “monkey see, monkey do” but there were some observable improvements. The new bees (newbies?) started to chose balls closer to themselves, even if the teaching bee used a ball that was farther away.

Their little brains are very efficient. There are almost a million neurons in a bee brain. That is approximately the number of neurons in one human retina.

Credit: O.J. Loukola et al., Science (2017)

Credit: O.J. Loukola et al., Science (2017)

You have probably seen videos that show how bees communicate through a kind of dance, head-butting and jostling each other.

An earlier study asked “Are Bigger Brains Better?” and the answer seems to be that even small brains can be highly complex and the assumption that the smaller the brain, the less intelligent the species is outdated.

How Smart Do You Think You Are?

I read about two studies that were done concerning IQ and the more general sense of just how smart we think we are.

Your IQ (intelligence quotient) was probably tested and measured in school, though you probably were never told your magic IQ number. Think you might be a genius?

Genius IQ is generally considered to begin around 140 to 145. That’s about ~.25% of the population or 1 in 400 people. There are varying guides to how the geniuses are divided up. One guide shows:
115-124 – Above average (e.g., university students)
125-134 – Gifted (e.g., post-graduate students)
135-144 – Highly gifted (e.g., intellectuals)
145-154 – Genius (e.g., professors)
155-164 – Genius (e.g., Nobel Prize winners)
165-179 – High genius
180-200 – Highest genius
>200 – “Unmeasurable genius”

Einstein was considered to “only” have an IQ of about 160.

Since the early 20th century, IQ scores were increasing at 10 points per generation, but in the last twenty or thirty years, humans have started getting dumber – if dropping IQ scores are to be believed.

The trend that IQ increased throughout the 20th century is known as the Flynn effect, named after intelligence researcher James Flynn after he observed the rises in IQs for every decade in the 20th century. But in recent years there has been a slowdown or reversal of this upward trend, at least in some countries.

The Flynn Effect is attributed to a variety of societal improvements during the 20th century, including prenatal and early post-natal care, reduced exposure to lead, reduction of pathogens, improved nutrition, better education and improved social environment.

But from the 1970’s onwards, our intelligence has started falling. Are we getting dumber?

One theory concerns dividing our intelligence into two types: fluid and crystallized. Blame is thrown at schools that value and judge you on your ability to recall information for tests and exams. That is crystallized intelligence. It is a type of intelligence that is fine for many service class jobs.  An increasing number of people are going into these kinds of service jobs, and many of those jobs are being dumbed down. You don’t need to add or subtract or even put in amounts when the iconized cash register shows you a picture of a soda or a burger or fries and does it all for you.

But fluid intelligence is what we use for problem solving, critical thinking and higher order skills. It’s not that fluid is better; it’s that both kinds are needed for higher intelligence.

Let me bring in here a second effect: the Dunning Kruger Effect. This was developed by David Dunning and Justin Kruger of Cornell University who found a cognitive bias that occurs when people fail to adequately assess their level of competence (or incompetence) at a task. They consider themselves to be more competent than they actually are.

The theory has a far less academic name, according to the Urban Dictionary, as “Mount Stupid.” This is a mountain you climb until you get to the place where “you have enough knowledge of a subject to be vocal about it, without the wisdom to gather the full facts or read around the topic.”

It sounds like pop psychology, but there have been serious studies done on the effect. People with low ability do not have the necessary critical ability and self-awareness to recognize how low their ability actually is, and that leads them to have an inflated view of their own competence and knowledge.

In much cruder terms, this effect occurs when people are “too stupid to know how stupid they are.” Have you ever noticed this effect?

Dunning and Kruger tested developed their theory with tests of humor, logic, science and grammar. They found that those who performed best consistently underestimated their ability. But those who performed worst believed that they had in fact done well. As cognitive ability worsens, so does the ability for the participant to accurately assess their ability.

Again, in simpler terms, those with only a little knowledge were more dangerous than those that knew they had no knowledge about a subject. “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing“ said Alexander Pope way back in 1709.

The more you learn, the more you realize how much you don’t know. You have heard that, right? It is a commonly said idea, but it is actually a different cognitive bias known as “Imposter Syndrome.”

When Nicholas Carr published The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains in 2011 (and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize) people kept quoting his earlier Atlantic Monthly article “Is Google making us stupid?” He hit a nerve at the time – we enjoy the Internet a lot, but are we sacrificing our ability to read and think deeply by using it too much?

Carr references earlier thinkers from Plato to McLuhan and notes that the idea that every information technology (printed books to the Net) also changes our nature of knowledge and intelligence.

Thinking people feared that the printed book would erode our use of memory. But it actually served to focus our attention and promoted deep and creative thought.

Carr doesn’t think the Internet is doing good things. It encourages rapid, distracted dipping into bits of information from many sources. His theory is that what it is making us better at is scanning and skimming – not concentration, contemplation, and reflection.

But you’re reading this article and you’re thinking about it. Did it make you feel a bit stupider or a bit smarter to read it? Will you comment on it, or share it, or read more about it, or talk to someone else about it?

Middle School and the Turing Test

The Turing test is a test of a machine’s ability to exhibit intelligent behavior. The test was introduced by Alan Turing in his 1950 paper “Computing Machinery and Intelligence,” which tried to deal with the question, “Can machines think?

In Turing’s test, a human judge engages in a natural language conversation with a human and a machine designed to generate performance indistinguishable from that of a human being. All participants are separated from one another. If the judge cannot reliably tell the machine from the human, the machine is said to have passed the test.

The test does not concern itself with whether answers are “correct” since humans are not always correct but do sound human,

Alan Turing is often called the father of computer science. He became famous for cracking the Nazi’s Enigma machine.

The Turing Test continues to be used to determine a machine’s artificial intelligence. Recently, I read about what was described as “the largest Turing test in history” where the test was almost beaten by a “normal teenager.”

Eugene Goostman is a typical seventh-grader from a middle-class family, a bit awkward and with an odd sense of humor. And that peculiar middle-schooler personality is probably what led to Eugene winning the top prize at the Turing 100 event.

At the event, 29% of respondents thought that the Eugene artificial chat was a real person.  You need to fool 30% of the humans to actually pass the test, but 29% is an impressive score.  Eugene is the creation of  Vladimir Veselov who has entered Eugene in other competitions but this was his first Turing test win.

Then again, would you want your robot to have the personality of a 7th grader?  Is one AI problem that we have been expecting our artificially intelligent machines to be grownups?

Final Note: Alan Turing

Turing’s life story has a lousy ending. His homosexuality resulted in a criminal prosecution in 1952, when homosexual acts were still illegal in the United Kingdom. He accepted treatment with female hormones (chemical castration) as an alternative to prison. Turing worked from 1952 until 1954 on mathematical biology, specifically morphogenesis. But he died in 1954, just after his 42nd birthday, from cyanide poisoning which was judged a suicide.

In 2009, following an Internet campaign, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown made an official public apology on behalf of the British government for “the appalling way he was treated”.

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