November 1, 2014

Intelligence and context

A. Most efforts to construct artificial intelligence are focussed on computation: building a brain with the right program and enough computational power.

B.1a We feel there to be something very special about ourselves and our species, compared to all the rest of the known universe.

B.1b And we believe this very special thing is extraordinarily and intrinsically important.

B.2 We have many things we can point to when we want to illustrate this specialness - our ability to communicate, to create, to transform nature profoundly, … Nowadays we mostly we use the concept of intelligence both as a name for these various aspects of our specialness and also as a kind of explanation for all of them, a distillation of their essence.

C. Put A and B together and you would have to accept claim X:

Claim X: the essential nature of our specialness is computational. Our tiny species can move mountains primarily because we have highly developed computational ability. We are the highest pinnacle of the known universe’s development because we have the right kind of brain. Some people might even claim we have souls because we have the right kind of brain.

Most of us believe this isn’t quite right but we aren’t sure what to say. In some times and places, the most frequent objection is to say B is wrong:

Claim Y: but regardless of our performance in the outside world, the essential part of our specialness is having an immortal soul.

So given these two claims, the rational scientific impulse and obligation would be to prefer the obviously limited, but not obviously wrong, claim X rather than to go with an unprovable claim Y about unobservable entities.

I am sure C is wrong, I don’t know about B but I am sure A is wrong too. Computational power and complexity is just one aspect of what we call intelligence. But computational power and complexity interact with many other factors which are also crucial. We will find those factors in the context which surrounds what we call intelligent behaviour. This context is just as crucial in making us what we are. To model what is special about us, we need both computational power and the rest of the context.

Our specialness a combination of intelligence and the rest of its context in the complementary way in which a song is a combination of the rhythm, the words, the tune. They are inseparable but also none can be reduced to the other.

This is like the way that genetic material depends on a whole host of other factors in order to mean what it means. You really can’t understand evolution if you don’t understand the context.

Some of the biggest aspects of the context that surrounds the brain are of course the body and various interlocking social groups, motivational realities, and the larger physical, natural etc environments which surrounds it all. How do which features of those social groups interact with the computational powers of the brain, like parts of a puzzle fitting together? We could ask, for example, how much does the computational power of the brain interact with the way social groups work in order to create situations in which cognitive ability makes sense and has a job to do? And as a follow-up to that question, what role does the brain play in constantly recreating and maintaining that group behaviour? Equally, what role does the group play in nurturing, shaping and even literally teaching the brain? (Neither of these is primary, neither brain nor group, neither chicken nor egg.)

The myriad features of the myriad groups which we are part of and have been part of embed and give meaning to and also directly influence our behaviour even when there are just two or even one of us.

But there are many other parts to the puzzle too. Just as profound is what you could call the motivational bedrock to our universe - first of all the facts of life and death, the threats to our individual and group survival. These factors impinge on, shape and drive our experience in many ways, whether we are talking about structures like fear of certain animals which are more or less hard-wired in our nervous systems, to motivational factors we implicitly or explicitly change and adjust as individuals or groups. There are hundreds of examples, like the way we promise ourselves and one another different kinds of rewards or punishments or other kinds of more ambiguous responses for different kinds of behaviour - and sometimes we do this consciously, sometimes unconsciously, sometimes instinctively as a parent with a young child. Where is this motivational system, this complex but real set of contingencies? It certainly isn’t only in the brain. And this system of real motivational contingencies overlaps with another world, the world of emotions. You could say one thing emotions do is to give us a way of experiencing those motivational contingencies, though we might argue that the emotional system is not a clear glass screen onto the facts of what (good, bad or ambivalent) will happen to is if we do this or that.

And where are these emotional systems? They are embedded in the whole of the rest of the context, including brains, groups, hard facts about survival, the weather, and so on. Each facet is embedded in all of the others.

Groups have emotional systems and processes too. The story we are told about mirror neurons is that they are part of a system which provides a way to control and process the behaviour of a whole group of beings. Not only are we free to consider groups of people as systems, but we have to (also) understand our groups in this way, because there are bits of our body whose primary evolutionary purpose is as part of a multi-member group and which cannot be explained on the level of individual systems. There is nothing magic or occult about this. Part of our intellectual journey is to gradually recognise, understand and study real systems whose boundaries are not formed by skin or walls.

These mirror neurons are part of a control system as real and as effective as any other control system. Group behaviour is one other essential part of what makes us special. Sure, group behaviour is influenced by brain activity but the converse is true too and neither direction of influence is primary.

So to recap - when they hear that scientists just need more computing power and better programs to successfully reproduce our very special behaviour, many people feel something essential and transcendental has been missed. What I am saying is:

  • it is a mistake to try to locate this special thing primarily in the brain as a property or product of computational power and programming.
  • we often relate this special thing to something transcendental or spiritual, like the soul. And usually we think of the soul as something located or attached to a mind or a brain or a mind in a body. If the specialness is a property of many overlapping and interlocking systems as discussed above, which include, for example, the groups we belong to, then perhaps these systems taken together are where the transcendental is to be found.

(There might also be a relativistic objection which says B1 is wrong, that as a species we really have history of explaining development - of the universe, of life, of our species, as a slow-motion culmination leading to us at its current but ever-rising peak. B1 just reasserts that we have chosen to take an anthropocentric view of everything; our specialness is just an illusion caused by the fact that we are the ones making the judgment about specialness. )

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