Clever Cogs: Ants, AI, And The Slippery Idea Of Intelligence

by Jochen Szangolies

Figure 1: The Porphyrian Tree. Detail of a fresco at the Kloster Schussenried. Image credit: modified from Franz Georg Hermann, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

The arbor porphyriana is a scholastic system of classification in which each individual or species is categorized by means of a sequence of differentiations, going from the most general to the specific. Based on the categories of Aristotle, it was introduced by the 3rd century CE logician Porphyry, and a huge influence on the development of medieval scholastic logic. Using its system of differentiae, humans may be classified as ‘substance, corporeal, living, sentient, rational’. Here, the lattermost term is the most specific—the most characteristic of the species. Therefore, rationality—intelligence—is the mark of the human.

However, when we encounter ‘intelligence’ in the news, these days, chances are that it is used not as a quintessentially human quality, but in the context of computation—reporting on the latest spectacle of artificial intelligence, with GPT-3 writing scholarly articles about itself or DALL·E 2 producing close-to-realistic images from verbal descriptions. While this sort of headline has become familiar, lately, a new word has risen in prominence at the top of articles in the relevant publications: the otherwise innocuous modifier ‘general’. Gato, a model developed by DeepMind, we’re told is a ‘generalist’ agent, capable of performing more than 600 distinct tasks. Indeed, according to Nando de Freitas, team lead at DeepMind, ‘the game is over’, with merely the question of scale separating current models from truly general intelligence.

There are several interrelated issues emerging from this trend. A minor one is the devaluation of intelligence as the mark of the human: just as Diogenes’ plucked chicken deflates Plato’s ‘featherless biped’, tomorrow’s AI models might force us to rethink our self-image as ‘rational animals’. But then, arguably, Twitter already accomplishes that.

Slightly more worrying is a cognitive bias in which we take the lower branches of Porphyry’s tree to entail the higher ones. Read more »

Cerebral Imperialism

Neurons The present is where the future comes to die, or more accurately, where an infinite array of possible futures all collapse into one. We live in a present where artificial intelligence hasn't been invented, despite a quarter century of optimistic predictions. John Horgan in Scientific American suggests we're a long way from developing it, despite all the optimistic predictions (although when it does come it may well be as a sudden leap into existence, a sudden achievement of critical mass). However and whenever (or if ever) it arrives, it's an idea worth discussing today. But, a question: Does this line of research suffer from “cerebral imperialism”?


The idea of “cerebral imperialism” came up in an interview I did for the current issue of Tricycle, a Buddhist magazine, with transhumanist professor and writer James “J” Hughes. One exchange went like this:

Eskow: There seems to be a kind of cognitive imperialism among some Transhumanists that says the intellect alone is “self.” Doesn’t saying “mind” is who we are exclude elements like body, emotion, culture, and our environment? Buddhism and neuroscience both suggest that identity is a process in which many elements co-arise to create the individual experience on a moment-by-moment basis. The Transhumanists seem to say, “I am separate, like a data capsule that can be uploaded or moved here and there.”

You’re right. A lot of our Transhumanist subculture comes out of computer science— male computer science—so a lot of them have that traditional “intelligence is everything” view. s soon as you start thinking about the ability to embed a couple of million trillion nanobots in your brain and back up your personality and memory onto a chip, or about advanced artificial intelligence deeply wedded with your own mind, or sharing your thoughts and dreams and feelings with other people, you begin to see the breakdown of the notion of discrete and continuous self.

An intriguing answer – one of many Hughes offers in the interview – but I was going somewhere else: toward the idea that cognition itself, that thing which we consider “mind,” is over-emphasized in our definition of self and therefore is projected onto our efforts to create something we call “artificial intelligence.”

Is the “society of mind” trying to colonize the societies of body and emotion?

Read more »