What defines an “Intelligent” species?

I’ve always struggled with how to classify a species as intelligent or not. It must be simple and applicable across any expected type of life, not just the ones we have so far encountered on earth.

I would normally classify YouTube as the antitheses of a thought-provoking blog but was stunned the other day when my son sent me a link to “I’m a Stupid Cat” that got my mind racing on this subject.

It is the typical “funny cat” video set to music and lyrics (language warning) and although it is not precisely anti-cat propaganda it does highlight the innocence of a domesticated cat’s life.

A screen capture of the YouTube video “I’m a stupid Cat”

Hidden amongst the profanities and humorous anecdotes was a startling observation that “[cats] don’t even know they’re going to die.”

And it was precisely this quote that struck a chord with me.

Is it this quality, an understanding of time and personal mortality, that defines an intelligent species?

It is also interesting to note that our species is taxonomically known as Homo sapiens, Latin for “knowing man”.

A little research turned up an article on The Daily Galaxy entitled “The Planet’s Other “Intelligent” Species: Do Dolphins Have a Sense of the Future?” At the Institute for Marine Mammal Studies in Mississippi, Kelly the Dolphin could very well [have] got the upper hand on her human trainers… or pets?

All the dolphins at the center are trained to retrieve trash that has mistakenly fallen in to their pools. Upon seeing a nearby trainer, they are to take said trash to the trainer. In return, they receive a fish for their cleanliness.

However it seems that Kelly has found a loophole in the system, and is exploiting it to interesting ends. She hoards her trash, underneath a rock at the bottom of her pool, and when she sees a trainer she goes down and removes a piece of paper or trash to get her fish. However she won’t use all her paper at once, instead she holds on to them for the future.

It is an interesting behavior, considering that it is very much like humans storing food for the winter; it displays an awareness of tomorrow.

The Planet’s Other “Intelligent” Species: Do Dolphins Have a Sense of the Future?

I’m not discussing the intelligence of this animal or that but each entire species and it is not useful to quote a single specific example such as the dolphin “Kelly” above, otherwise one could use a human baby as proof that Homo sapiens do not pass this test.

The quality must be inherent in the mature species and only absent by exception.

Although René Descartes is credited as the father of analytical geometry (the bridge between algebra and geometry), crucial to my work as a spatial scientist, he is perhaps best known for the philosophical statement:

“Cogito ergo sum” (French: Je pense, donc je suis; English: I think, therefore I am) – in part IV of Discourse on the Method (1637)

Which also harks back to the classification of our species as “Knowing Man”.

So…is the comprehension of time and mortality (or more colloquially: do they know they’re going to die) a valid way to classify a species as intelligent or not?

…and what does this mean for us and these other intelligent species? Are they to be protected? Are they exempt from use as a source of materials or food? And are they also unsuitable for use as involuntary manual labour or entertainment?


A to Z Challenge – a retrospective

I have had my blog for over three years and have posted iregularly whenever I was inspired by something I’ve read, seen, heard, or thought but taking on the A to Z April Challenge meant writing 26 posts in one month.

The concensous is that writers write everyday and don’t wait for inspiration

When I decide to try something I do it wholeheartedly and for me and the A to Z April Challenge that meant that I approached each post as stream of consciousness, with little or no preparation apart from a list of A-to-Z with potential topics. I know that some people have prepared their posts in the weeks before April and although I admit that I may have finished on time if I had taken this approach I am unsure if I agree with it.

I tried to write each post in one session, dropping my thoughts almost unedited from my heart/mind and on to the page/screen.

This doesn’t mean that I was flippant in my writing but it did teach me to edit once and then let it go. I did fix typos in the minutes and hours after each post.

The Stats for April:

  • Followers: increased from 11 to 219
  • Views for April: 11,589
  • Comments: 260
  • Most popular post: What is the Beginners’s Mind?

WordPress – Freshly Pressed

Although I’m tempted to claim the highlight of the month was having my “B” post promoted on the WordPress Freshly Pressed page but it has actually been the amazing blogs that I’ve discovered and the wonderful and inspring comments I’ve received, especially when posts have been re-blogged.

Thanks to everyone at A to Z Challenge, to all my followers, and the the blogs I now follow and am regularly inspried by.

The Posts:

Thanks again…

Who is the real Zo Boone? A new Koan is born

This is my final post in the A to Z Challenge for 2012…a few days late, but better late than never.

Zo Boone is one of the POV character’s in the Mars Trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson. She is the granddaughter of John Boone; the first man on Mars, and (spoiler alert) was killed in a human flying accident. But in the Twenty-second  Century humans can “back themselves up” and she features again later in the series. But…is it truly her?

There are quite a few passages in Hugo and Nebula award winning author Kim Stanley Robinson’s books that have “the stench of Zen”. The one below was a particularly enlightening one for me, it “stank” of the following “popularised” Zen Koan:

  • What is the sound of one hand clapping
  • If a tree falls in the forest, and no one is there, does it make a sound

A  little bit of exposition:

  • The scene is set on Miranda, a moon of Uranus, where Zo is on a Twenty-second  Century Eco-Holiday. An early theory about the formation of Miranda suggested it was formed by the collision of two planetesimal bodies melding to form a single moon.

After that they hiked down the spine of the buttress in silence. Over the course of the day they descended to Bottoms Landing. Now they were a kilometre below the rims of the chasm, and the sky was a starry band overhead; Uranus fat in the middle of it, the sun a blazing jewel just to one side. Under this gorgeous array the depth of the rift was sublime, astonishing; again Zo felt herself to be flying.

“You’ve located intrinsic worth in the wrong place,” she said to all of them… “It’s like a rainbow. Without an observer at a twenty three degree angle to the light being reflected off a cloud of spherical droplets, there is no rainbow. The whole universe is like that. Our spirits stand at a twenty three degree angle to the universe. There is some new thing created at the contact of photon and retina, some space created between rock and mind. Without mind there is no intrinsic worth.” – Blue Mars (Pages 435-436).

This rainbow analogy pays forward in so many ways and is reminiscent of many Aikido teachings of Koichi Tohei‘s:

The Mind leads the body

Aikido: The Art of Self Defense by Koichi Tohe...

Aikido: The Art of Self Defense by Koichi Tohei (1976) (Photo credit: daninofal)

Do not think that the power you have is only the power you ordinarily use and moan that you have little strength. The power you ordinarily use is like the small visible segment of an iceberg. When we unify our  mind and body and become one with the universe, we can use the great power that is naturally ours. – Koichi Tohei

and merging it with the rainbow analogy:

A greater thing is formed at the intersection of mind and body.

Post Singularity, who am I?

Returning to the character Zo, the capability to back up and retrieve ourselves that Futurist Ray Kurzweil predicts will be possible this century raises the question of identity to another level.

What if you are thought to be dead, and a recent backup copy is used to retrieve you, and then months or years later you are found alive and there are now two of you?

Who is you? Is the retrieved you, who has lived and grown as a separate entity, now terminated? I think the technological advances approaching us will shatter our society if we do not begin to address them in the near future.

So is this Zo Boone that went on an Eco-Holiday to Miranda the real Zo? Does she have the same rights?

This is doing my head in, and a new modern-day Koan is born:

Who is the real Zo Boone?

“Z” is for Zo Boone

Ray Kurzweil…and the singularity

Ray Kurzweil, the Futurist, wrote The Age of Intelligent Machines between 1986 and 1989 and in it he extrapolated existing trends to make many predictions about technology. He predicted that:

by 1998 a computer would beat the world’s best chess player. In fact IBM’s Deep Blue computer beat the World Chess Champion Garry Kasparov.

He also stated that the Internet would explode not only in the number of users but in content as well, eventually granting users access “to international networks of libraries, data bases, and information services”.

Kurzweil wrote that, due to paradigm shifts, a trend of exponential growth will extend Moore’s law from integrated circuits to electromechanical computers. He predicts that the exponential growth will continue, and that in a few decades the computing power of all computers will exceed that of human brains, with superhuman artificial intelligence appearing around the same time.

Moore's Law, The Fifth Paradigm

In his most controversial prediction however Kurzweil postulates a law of accelerating return where by the improvements in technology increase exponetially to a point known as the Technological Singularity where the computer, medical, and material technology (nanotechnology) advances to enable artificial intelligence or amplification of human intelligence.

“The Singularity will allow us to transcend these limitations of our biological bodies and brains … There will be no distinction, post-Singularity, between human and machine.” Ray Kurzweil The Singularity is Near pg. 9

I have read many descriptions of the Technological Singularity but the most simple is that at this point artificial intelligence can improve itself faster than humans can and thay will do exactly that, effectivly cutting us out of the loop.

Although many technologists do not support the plausibility of a sudden change such as this, the issue is worthy of study by artificial intelligence reserchers.

R is for Ray Kurzweil – the Futurist

Transcending the physical limits of Einsteinian laws

Just as humans have broken through barriers we’ve previously thought to be insurmountable, so will we find a way to transcend the physical laws of gravity, space and eventually time.  In simplified terms Einsteinian law sets the practical physical limit for space travel at much less than the speed of light; the faster we travel the greater our mass and with a corresponding increase in energy to continue to accelerate. Yet in contrast we can send data at the speed of light without even trying, and have done since early last century.

Distant Spiral Galaxy NGC 4603, Home to Variable Stars
Source: Hubblesite.org

Ray Kurzweil describes a point in our evolution—it is closer than we think—when we can convert our entire consciousness into data (not just our memory), and, therefore, send it at the speed of light where ever we want. But if there is nothing out there to receive it, it will remain as data and continue on infinitely through the universe. If we do come to communicate with a similarly intelligent and advanced society light years away we could first send information and instructions on how to build a biological vessel for our transported consciousness to be downloaded to. We will find ourselves having traveled across space at impossible speeds for physical objects.

To me this sounds perfectly plausible and if it sounds plausible to us in our current primitive state then it will be much simpler in the future.

We have to unshackle our minds from the physical world, and limiting our thoughts to the current and immediately past paradigms. The universe is too big [yet another physical term?] for that. I think this is a way for us to comprehend the universe as infinite. With our minds shackled to physical ideals we cannot grasp the infinite; the best we can do is think of something so large we can barely comprehend it. To truly be able to understand the infinite we must release our maniacal grasp on physical ideals…all of them.

Kurzweil’s Singularity and artificial enhancements to our body

The concept of the singularity came up last night while I was researching an aspect of my novel. According to Ray Kurzweil, the singularity is point in the evolution of the universe when technology can improve itself faster than humans can improve it and the technology cuts us out of the loop.


Long before this point, however, Kurzweil predicts there will be only a few humans without extensive artificial enhancement wether it be enhanced limbs, digestive systems, or the insertion of entertainment driven nanobots. He also suggests the possibility to upload your mind entirely from your physical body. I found this disconcerting and a little depressing. It is not the future I imagined for my grandchildren where the line between their natural human presence and a humanoid cyborg is blurred.

This was a distraction to my research and I pushed these thoughts to one side and continued along, suitably engrossed, on my original path of discovery. The next time I looked up from my books and notebook I noticed it was 1am and thought, “Why do I have to sleep? There’re so many things I want to research and understand!” My mind raced while I reluctantly closed the notebook and slid my fountain pen into its leather case. How could I get by with less sleep? And then, like the target of my own satirical attack I choked on the thought. This is why humans will opt for artificial enhancement; not just to run faster, or to breathe in a CO2 rich atmosphere, but to release our mind from the dirty biological container it’s entrapped in.

I realised I will be tempted to upload my mind. But this realisation led me to consider what would become of the mind/body that remained—I must assume the uploaded “consciousness” is a copy. Would it be culled and consumed as some form of payment for service, or could the physical part be “parked” as a potential refuge for the mind if an emergency eventuated that threatened the security of the artificially supported entity in the world wide neural web? A hard copy backup or snapshot…

How would these artificially supported consciousnesses interact? Just consider the difficulty in sustaining a long distance relationship without the occasional physical visit. Maybe we’ll interact in a completely virtual environment so authentic the experience sufficiently meets the demands of our minds; however unclear they currently may be. There’s has to be a short story here at least!