(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘intelligence

“The brain is a wonderful organ; it starts working the moment you get up in the morning and does not stop until you get into the office”*…

For as long as humans have thought, humans have thought about thinking. George Cave on the power and the limits of the metaphors we’ve used to do that…

For thousands of years, humans have described their understanding of intelligence with engineering metaphors. In the 3rd century BCE, the invention of hydraulics popularized the model of fluid flow (“humours”) in the body. This lasted until the 1500s, supplanted by the invention of automata and the idea of humans as complex machines. From electrical and chemical metaphors in the 1700s to advances in communications a century later, each metaphor reflected the most advanced thinking of that era. Today is no different: we talk of brains that store, process and retrieve memories, mirroring the language of computers.

I’ve always believed metaphors to be helpful and productive in communicating unfamiliar concepts. But this fascinating history of cognitive science metaphors shows that flawed metaphors can take hold and limit the scope for alternative ideas. In the worst case, the EU spent 10 years and $1.3 billion building a model of the brain based on the incorrect belief that the brain functions like a computer…

Thinking about thinking, from @George_Cave in @the_prepared.

Apposite: “Finding Language in the Brain.”

* Robert Frost


As we cogitate on cognition, we might send carefully-computed birthday greetings to Grace Brewster Murray Hopper.  A seminal computer scientist and Rear Admiral in the U.S. Navy, “Amazing Grace” (as she was known to many in her field) was one of the first programmers of the Harvard Mark I computer (in 1944), invented the first compiler for a computer programming language, and was one of the leaders in popularizing the concept of machine-independent programming languages– which led to the development of COBOL, one of the first high-level programming languages.

Hopper also (inadvertently) contributed one of the most ubiquitous metaphors in computer science: she found and documented the first computer “bug” (in 1947).

She has both a ship (the guided-missile destroyer USS Hopper) and a super-computer (the Cray XE6 “Hopper” at NERSC) named in her honor.


Written by (Roughly) Daily

December 9, 2022 at 1:00 am

“The intelligence of the universe is social”*…

From the series Neural Zoo by Sofia Crespo

Recently, (Roughly) Daily looked at AI and our (that’s to say, humans’) possible relationships to it. In a consideration of Jame Bridle‘s new book, Ways of Being, Doug Bierend widens the iris, considering our relationship not only to intelligences we might create but also to those with which we already co-habit…

It’s lonely at the top, but it doesn’t have to be. We humans tend to see ourselves as the anointed objects of evolution, our intelligence representing the leading edge of unlikely order cultivated amid an entropic universe. While there is no way to determine any purpose or intention behind the processes that produced us, let alone where they will or should lead, that hasn’t stopped some from making assertions. 

For example, consider the school of thought called longtermism, explored by Phil Torres in this essay for Aeon. Longtermism — a worldview held, as Torres notes, by some highly influential people including Elon Musk, Peter Thiel, tech entrepreneur Jaan Tallinn, and Jason Matheny, President Biden’s deputy assistant for technology and national security — essentially sees the prime directive of Homo sapiens as one of maximizing the “potential” of our species. That potential — often defined along such utilitarian lines as maximizing the population, distribution, longevity, and comfort that future humans could achieve over the coming millennia — is what longtermers say should drive the decisions we make today. Its most extreme version represents a kind of interstellar manifest destiny, human exceptionalism on the vastest possible scale. The stars are mere substrate for the extension and preservation of our species’ putatively unique gifts. Some fondly imagine our distant descendants cast throughout the universe in womb-like symbiosis with machines, ensconced in virtual environments enjoying perpetual states of bliss —The Matrix as utopia. 

Longtermist philosophy also overlaps with the “transhumanist” line of thought, articulated by figures such as philosopher Nick Bostrom, who describes human nature as incomplete, “a half-baked beginning that we can learn to remold in desirable ways.” Here, humanity as currently or historically constituted isn’t an end so much as a means of realizing some far greater fate. Transhumanism espouses the possibility of slipping the surly bonds of our limited brains and bodies to become “more than human,” in a sense reminiscent of fictional android builder Eldon Tyrell in Blade Runner: “Commerce is our goal,” Tyrell boasts. “‘More human than human’ is our motto.” Rather than celebrating and deepening our role within the world that produced us, these outlooks seek to exaggerate and consummate a centuries-long process of separation historically enabled by the paired forces of technology and capital. 

But this is not the only possible conception of the more than human. In their excellent new book Ways of Being, James Bridle also invokes the “more than human,” not as an effort to exceed our own limitations through various forms of enhancement but as a mega-category that collects within it essentially everything, from microbes and plants to water and stone, even machines. It is a grouping so vast and diverse as to be indefinable, which is part of Bridle’s point: The category disappears, and the interactions within it are what matters. More-than-human, in this usage, dismisses human exceptionalism in favor of recognizing the ecological nature of our existence, the co-construction of our lives, futures, and minds with the world itself. 

From this point of view, human intelligence is just one form of a more universal phenomenon, an emergent “flowering” found all throughout the evolutionary tree. It is among the tangled bramble of all life that our intelligence becomes intelligible, a gestalt rather than a particular trait. As Bridle writes, “intelligence is not something which exists, but something one does. It is active, interpersonal and generative, and it manifests when we think and act.” In Bridle’s telling, mind and meaning alike exist by way of relationship with everything else in the world, living or not. Accepting this, it makes little sense to elevate human agency and priorities above all others. If our minds are exceptional, it is still only in terms of their relationship to everything else that acts within the world. That is, our minds, like our bodies, aren’t just ours; they are contingent on everything else, which would suggest that the path forward should involve moving with the wider world rather than attempting to escape or surpass it.

This way of thinking borrows heavily from Indigenous concepts and cosmologies. It decenters human perspective and priorities, instead setting them within an infinite concatenation of agents engaged in the collective project of existence. No one viewpoint is more favored than another, not even of the biological over the mineral or mechanical. It is an invitation to engage with the “more-than-human” world not as though it consisted of objects but rather fellow subjects. This would cut against the impulse to enclose and conquer nature, which has been reified by our very study of it….

Technology often presupposes human domination, but it could instead reflect our ecological dependence: “Entangled Intelligence,” from @DougBierend in @_reallifemag (via @inevernu and @sentiers). Eminently worth reading in full.

* Marcus Aurelius, The Meditations


As we welcome fellow travelers, we might recall that this date in 1752 was the final day of use of the Julian calendar in Great Britain, Ireland, and the British colonies, including those on the East coast of America. Eleven days were skipped to sync to the Gregorian calendar, which was designed to realign the calendar with equinoxes. Hence the following day was September 14. (Most of Europe had shifted, by Papal decree, to the Gregorian calendar in the 16th century; Russia and China made the move in the 20th century.)


Written by (Roughly) Daily

September 2, 2022 at 1:00 am

“It takes something more than intelligence to act intelligently”*…

AI isn’t human, but that doesn’t mean, Nathan Gardels argues (citing three recent essays in Noema, the magazine that he edits), that it cannot be intelligent…

As the authors point out, “the dominant technique in contemporary AI is deep learning (DL) neural networks, massive self-learning algorithms which excel at discerning and utilizing patterns in data.”

Critics of this approach argue that its “insurmountable wall” is “symbolic reasoning, the capacity to manipulate symbols in the ways familiar from algebra or logic. As we learned as children, solving math problems involves a step-by-step manipulation of symbols according to strict rules (e.g., multiply the furthest right column, carry the extra value to the column to the left, etc.).”

Such reasoning would enable logical inferences that can apply what has been learned to unprogrammed contingencies, thus “completing patterns” by connecting the dots. LeCun and Browning argue that, as with the evolution of the human mind itself, in time and with manifold experiences, this ability may emerge as well from the neural networks of intelligent machines.

“Contemporary large language models — such as GPT-3 and LaMDA — show the potential of this approach,” they contend. “They are capable of impressive abilities to manipulate symbols, displaying some level of common-sense reasoning, compositionality, multilingual competency, some logical and mathematical abilities, and even creepy capacities to mimic the dead. If you’re inclined to take symbolic reasoning as coming in degrees, this is incredibly exciting.”

The philosopher Charles Taylor associates the breakthroughs of consciousness in that era with the arrival of written language. In his view, access to the stored memories of this first cloud technology enabled the interiority of sustained reflection from which symbolic competencies evolved.

This “transcendence” beyond oral narrative myth narrowly grounded in one’s own immediate circumstance and experience gave rise to what the sociologist Robert Bellah called “theoretic culture” — a mental organization of the world at large into the abstraction of symbols. The universalization of abstraction, in turn and over a long period of time, enabled the emergence of systems of thought ranging from monotheistic religions to the scientific reasoning of the Enlightenment.

Not unlike the transition from oral to written culture, might AI be the midwife to the next step of evolution? As has been written in this column before, we have only become aware of climate change through planetary computation that abstractly models the Earthly organism beyond what any of us could conceive out of our own un-encompassing knowledge or direct experience.

For Bratton and Agüera y Arcas, it comes down in the end to language as the “cognitive infrastructure” that can comprehend patterns, referential context and the relationality among them when facing novel events.

“There are already many kinds of languages. There are internal languages that may be unrelated to external communication. There are bird songs, musical scores and mathematical notation, none of which have the same kinds of correspondences to real-world referents,” they observe.

As an “executable” translation of human language, code does not produce the same kind of intelligence that emerges from human consciousness, but is intelligence nonetheless. What is most likely to emerge in their view is not “artificial” intelligence when machines become more human, but “synthetic” intelligence, which fuses both.

As AI further develops through human prompt or a capacity to guide its own evolution by acquiring a sense of itself in the world, what is clear is that it is well on the way to taking its place alongside, perhaps conjoining and becoming synthesized with, other intelligences, from homo sapiens to insects to forests to the planetary organism itself…

AI takes its place among and may conjoin with other multiple intelligences: “Cognizant Machines: A What Is Not A Who.” Eminentl worth reading in full both the linked essay and the articles referenced in it.

* Dostoyevsky, Crime and Punishment


As we make room for company, we might recall that it was on this date in 1911 that a telegraph operator in the 7th floor of The New York Times headquarters in Times Square sent a message– “This message sent around the world”– that left at 7:00p, traveled over 28,000 miles, and was relayed by 16 different operators. It arrived back at the Times only 16.5 minutes later.

The “around the world telegraphy” record had been set in 1903, when President Roosevelt celebrated the completion of the Commercial Pacific Cable by sending the first round-the-world message in just 9 minutes. But that message had been given priority status; the Times wanted to see how long a regular message would take — and what route it would follow.

The building from which the message originated is now called One Times Square and is best known as the site of the New Year’s Eve ball drop.


Written by (Roughly) Daily

August 20, 2022 at 1:00 am

“Homo sapiens, the only creature endowed with reason, is also the only creature to pin its existence on things unreasonable”*…

We appeared 800,000-300,000 years ago, or in the last 1.5%-5.3% of hominid history

How, Sarah Constantin asks, did we humans get so smart?

If you zoom way out and look at the history of life on Earth, humans evolved incredibly recently. The Hominidae — the family that includes orangutans, chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, and humans — only arose 20 million years ago, in the most recent 0.5% of evolutionary history.

Within the Hominidae, in turn, Homo sapiens is a very recent development [see image at top]. We appeared 800,000-300,000 years ago, or in the last 1.5%-5.3% of hominid history.

If you look at early hominid “technological” milestones like tool use or cooking, though, they’re a lot more spread out over time. That’s interesting.

There’s nothing to suggest that a single physical change in brains should have given us both tool use and fire, for instance; if that were the case, you’d expect to see them show up at the same time.

Purposeful problem-solving behaviors like tool use and cooking are not unique to hominids; some other mammals and birds use tools, and lots of vertebrates (including birds and fish) can learn to solve puzzles to get a food reward. The general class of “problem-solving behavior” that we see, to one degree or another, in many vertebrates, doesn’t seem to have arisen surprisingly fast compared to the existence of animals in general.

However, to the extent that Homo sapiens has unique cognitive abilities, those did show up surprisingly recently, and it makes sense to privilege the hypothesis that they have a common physical cause.

So what are these special human-unique cognitive abilities?…

Is Human Intelligence Simple? Part 1: Evolution and Archaeology,” from @s_r_constantin. Part 2 is here.

* Henri Bergson


As we study our species, we might send self-examining birthday greetings to Giambattista Vico; he was born on this date in 1668.  A political philosopher, rhetorician, historian, and jurist, Vico was one of the greatest Enlightenment thinkers.  Best known for the Scienza Nuova (1725, often published in English as New Science), he famously criticized the expansion and development of modern rationalism and was an apologist for classical antiquity.

He was an important precursor of systemic and complexity thinking (as opposed to Cartesian analysis and other kinds of reductionism); and he can be credited with the first exposition of the fundamental aspects of social science (and so, is considered by many to be the first forerunner of cultural anthropology and ethnography), though his views did not necessarily influence the first social scientists.  Vico is often claimed to have fathered modern philosophy of history (although the term is not found in his text; Vico speaks of a “history of philosophy narrated philosophically’).  While he was not strictly speaking a historicist, interest in him has been driven by historicists (like Isaiah Berlin).


“Attend to mushrooms and all other things will answer up”*…

Travis Boyer: Crush Blue, 2020

The living– and conscious?– infrastructure of the biosphere…

Imagine that you are afloat on your back in the sea. You have some sense of its vast, unknowable depths—worlds of life are surely darting about beneath you. Now imagine lying in a field, or on the forest floor. The same applies, though we rarely think of it: the dirt beneath you, whether a mile or a foot deep, is teeming with more organisms than researchers can quantify. Their best guess is that there are as many as one billion microbes in a single teaspoon of soil. Plant roots plunge and swerve like superhighways with an infinite number of on-ramps. And everywhere there are probing fungi.

Fungi are classified as their own kingdom, separate from plants and animals. They are often microscopic and reside mostly out of sight—mainly underground—but as Merlin Sheldrake writes in Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds and Shape Our Futures, they support and sustain nearly all living systems. Fungi are nature’s premiere destroyers and creators, digesting the world’s dead and leaving behind new soil. When millions of hair-like fungal threads—called hyphae—coalesce, felting themselves into complex shapes, they emerge from the ground as mushrooms. A mushroom is to a fungus as a pear is to a pear tree: the organism’s fruiting body, with spores instead of seeds. Mushrooms disperse spores by elaborate means: some species generate puffs of air to send them aloft, while others eject them by means of tiny, specialized catapults so they accelerate ten thousand times faster than a space shuttle during launch.

But Sheldrake is most interested in fungi’s other wonders—specifically, how they challenge our understanding of nonhuman intelligence and stretch the notion of biological individuality. Fungi infiltrate the roots of almost every plant, determining so much about its life that researchers are now asking whether plants can be considered plants without them. They are similarly interwoven throughout the human body, busily performing functions necessary to our health and well-being or, depending on the fungi’s species and lifestyle, wreaking havoc. All of this prompts doubts about what we thought we knew to be the boundaries between one organism and another…

ungi themselves form large networks of hyphae strands in order to feed. These strands, when massed together, are called mycelium. The total length of mycelium threaded through the globe’s uppermost four inches of soil is believed to be enough to span half the width of our galaxy. Mycelium is constantly moving, probing its surroundings in every direction and coordinating its movements over long distances. When food is found—a nice chunk of rotting wood, for example—disparate parts of the mycelium redirect to coalesce around it, excrete enzymes that digest it externally, and then absorb it. As Sheldrake puts it, “The difference between animals and fungi is simple: Animals put food in their bodies, whereas fungi put their bodies in the food.”

Fungi are literally woven into the roots and bodies of nearly every plant grown in natural conditions. “A plant’s fungal partners,” Sheldrake writes, “can have a noticeable impact on its growth.” In one striking example, he describes an experiment in which strawberries grown with different fungal partners changed their sweetness and shape. Bumblebees seemed able to discern the difference and were more attracted to the flowers of strawberry plants grown with certain fungal species. Elsewhere he discusses an experiment in which researchers took fungi that inhabited the roots of a species of coastal grass that grew readily in saltwater and added it to a dry-land grass that could not tolerate the sea. Suddenly the dry-land grass did just fine in brine.

Much has been written lately about trees communicating and sharing resources among themselves; healthy trees have been documented moving resources toward trees that have fallen ill. This is often characterized as friendship or altruism between trees, but it is not at all clear whether trees pass information or nutrients intentionally. What is clear, though, is that the fungal networks entwined in every tree root make this communication possible. “Why might it benefit a fungus to pass a warning between the multiple plants that it lives with?” Sheldrake asks. The answer is survival. “If a fungus is connected to several plants and one is attacked by aphids, the fungus will suffer as well as the plant,” he writes. “It is the fungus that stands to benefit from keeping the healthy plant alive.”…

Fungi are genetically closer to animals than to plants, and similar enough to humans at the molecular level that we benefit from many of their biochemical innovations. In fact, many of our pharmaceuticals are borrowed innovations from fungi. Penicillin, discovered in 1928 by the Scottish researcher Alexander Fleming, is a compound produced by fungus for protection against bacterial infection. The anti-cancer drug Taxol was originally isolated from the fungi that live inside yew trees. More than half of all enzymes used in industry are generated by fungi, Sheldrake notes, and 15 percent of all vaccines are produced using yeast. We are, as he puts it, “borrowing a fungal solution and rehousing it within our own bodies.”..

We know that fungi maintain “countless channels of chemical communication with other organisms,” and that they are constantly processing diverse information about their environment. Some can recognize color, thanks to receptors sensitive to blue and red light, though it is not entirely clear what they do with that information. Some even have opsins, light-detecting proteins also found within the rods and cones of the animal eye. One fungus, Phycomyces blakesleeanus, has a sensitivity to light similar to that of a human eye and can “detect light at levels as low as that provided by a single star” to help it decide where to grow. It is also able to sense the presence of nearby objects and will bend away from them before ever making contact. Still other fungi recognize texture; according to Sheldrake, the bean rust fungus has been demonstrated to detect grooves in artificial surfaces “three times shallower than the gap between the laser tracks on a CD.”

Can fungi, then, be said to have a mind of their own? That is, as Sheldrake puts it, a “question of taste”—there is no settled scientific definition for “intelligence,” not even for animals. The Latin root of the word means “to choose between,” an action fungi clearly do all the time. But the application of this kind of term to fungi is loaded with something more mystical than that simple definition and demands a willingness to rattle our sense of where we ourselves fall in the imagined hierarchy of life. If fungi can be said to think, it is a form of cognition so utterly different that we strain to see it.

After all, philosophers of mind like Daniel Dennett argue that drawing any neat line between nonhumans and humans with “real minds” is an “archaic myth.” Our brains evolved from nonmental material. “Brains are just one such network,” Sheldrake writes, “one way of processing information.” We still don’t know how the excitement of brain cells gives rise to experience. Can we really dismiss the possibility of cognition in an organism that clearly adapts, learns, and makes decisions simply based on the lack of a brain structure analogous to ours?

Perhaps there is intelligent life all around us, and our view is too human-centric to notice. Are fungi intelligent? Sheldrake reserves judgment, deferring instead to scientific mystery: “A sophisticated understanding of mycelium is yet to emerge.” Still, after spending long enough in the atmosphere of Sheldrake’s sporulating mind, I began to adopt the fungal perspective. I can’t help now but see something like a mind wherever there might be fungal threads—which is to say everywhere, a mesh-like entangled whole, all over the earth.

Fungi challenge our understanding of nonhuman intelligence and complicate the boundaries between one organism and another: “Our Silent Partners“– Zoë Schlanger (@zoeschlanger) reviewing Merlin Sheldrake’s Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds and Shape Our Futures in @nybooks.

Why did the mushroom go to the party? Because he was a fungi.” – Lewis Tomlinson

* A. R. Ammons


As we ponder partnership, we might spare a thought for Jens Wilhelm August Lind; he died on this date in 1939. An apothecary, botanist and mycologist, he published a full account of all fungi collected in Denmark by his teacher, Emil Rostrup. Combining his pharmaceutical and mycological knowledge, he was early in experimenting with chemical control of plant pathogens.

Lind also collaborated with Knud Jessen on an account on the immigration history of weeds to Denmark.

Gravestone of Jens Lind and wife Gunild, at Viborg Cemetery


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