Archive for December, 2008

What is intelligence?

Tuesday, December 23rd, 2008

In 1980 I worked with a mainframe programming language called ‘APL’. You could write little functions and execute them interactively by typing the name in the command line. Over the course of a few months, you could write a lot of little programs – too many to keep track of.

Once, in the early morning hours of a long night, I sleepily typed in the name of a program I wanted to edit, and pressed the ‘Return’ key. To my shock, the computer replied helpfully:

“You probably meant to type <>….”

Well, this was 1980. Mainframe computers generally didn’t converse, but they could already induce terror. I froze, and I still remember the tingle of fear that ran up my spine, and the seconds that passed as I sat back in my chair.

It didn’t take long, after the first few tenuous taps on the keyboard before I realized what had happened….

Months earlier I had written helper programs named for mis-formed command strings an operator might mistakenly type. It was intended to guide them in the right direction. The computer was not exhibiting intelligence – I had been frightened by my own application. It was too complex for me to know what to expect.

The effect of that made me a little less awed by my natural intelligence, and a little more inclined to suspect that what we call ‘intelligence’ may just be a complex deterministic system we don’t comprehend (intelligence is therefore paradoxically that which we are too stupid to understand….)

It leads me to think that if you want an intelligence, you could start by making a lot of really simple elements, and build on that.

You might develop specialized modules analogous to the development of higher brain functions. Could you end up with an ‘intelligence?’

Let’s consider an OpenIndex scenario – you could have a globe full of distributed, networked computers doing information gathering. You could also have programs written to monitor and respond to the information stream.

If you populated the globe with sensors, indexing robots could visit them and collect information, and you’d have a nervous system of sorts. Well, of course the Internet is analogous to that already, but the Internet is just a network.

With a global network capable of responding to the information, you’d have a sort of stimulus-response system.

Does the sum of the programs running on the servers, perturbed by the data stream, with resultant complexity, lead to a form of ‘intelligence’?

An indexing/search organism, fed by data, driven by inquiries, and responding like an animal: if enough people care about a particular subject, that becomes part of its character: its obsession.

It would live in a strange world, buffeted by drifting tides of information trends, seeking out ever more information, breathing in queries, and exhaling responses, building up its corpus of knowledge.

That would be sort of cool. But is it intelligence?

But for me, it would be darn close, and I’d argue it’s just a matter of degrees.

In related news, Intel wants to build self-powered sensors:

“We could, in fact, litter the planet with these things,” …. “Rather than depend on satellite information, we could literally get instantaneous, near-global indication of the state of the planet.” (