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What is Intelligence?

2011 October 9

We know intelligence when we see it.  Witty repartee at a cocktail party. Outstanding results on standardized tests.  Winning the big prize on a quiz show.

Defining it, however, is a bit harder.  Ask anyone, even professional researchers who are supposed to know about such things (and therefore be very intelligent themselves) and you’ll get a very disparate set of views.

The question of intelligence is coming to the fore because we want to make our machines intelligent (presumably that would give us license to relax and be a bit dumber).  It’s an incredibly hard problem.  To solve it we will need to solve the intelligence problem.  There has been some progress, but we’ve still got a long road ahead.

The Intelligence Quotient

It’s hard to think about intelligence without taking into account IQ tests.  They have a relatively long history, some say going back to imperial China, but they certainly at least to the 19th century.  Today, we all take them at an early age to determine our aptitude.

They are, of course, controversial.  They are very good at identifying problems with intelligence, but fall short at predicting outstanding ability.  Richard Feynman, one of the great geniuses of the 20th century had an IQ of 125, above average but by no means unusual.  It seems that once you get above a certain level, you’re smart enough to do just about anything.

A comprehensive report by the American Psychological Association, IQ scores were shown to have a 30%-50% correlation with professional success, so they are important but not determinant.  Other factors, associated with emotional intelligence, appear to be, if anything, more decisive.

Much of the research, (including the report noted above) indicates that intelligence is highly inherited and becomes even more so as we age, so fawning before nursery school admission committees is most likely a waste time.  However,  the good news is that we’re all getting more intelligent every generation, so if you feel smarter than your parents, you probably are.

The Turing Test

Another way of looking at intelligence is the Turing test, devised by the English computer genius Alan Turing in 1950 and was supposed to distinguish between humans and machines.  It was devilishly simple.  You would simply have a human judge converse with both machines and people and see if the judge could reliably tell the difference.

Alas, it turned out that the Turing test was relatively easy to pass.  One program, called ELIZA, was able to fool people as early as 1966.  Another, named PARRY was stumped even experienced psychologists.

Computers seem to be able to do some tasks as well as or even better than humans.  Cheap computer programs are able to play chess as well as human professionals.  We trust algorithms on sites like Google and Amazon to recommend things to us, sometimes even more than human experts.

The problem is that a computer that can pass a Turing test in one kind of task will fail miserably on another.  We might trust Amazon to choose a book for us, but not a mate. Google maps are great for giving us directions to a friend’s house, but would be at a loss if we asked it who might be fun to visit.

Artificial Intelligence

The field of Artificial Intelligence sprung forth in 1956 from a series of conferences at Dartmouth which included such luminaries such as Marvin Minsky, still a leading thinker in the field and Claude Shannon, the father of Information Theory.  There was great enthusiasm and they figured they would have the problem licked within 20 years.

Alas, it was not to be.  By the 1970’s Artificial Intelligence hit hard times and entered a long “winter” in which governments refused to fund further research.  Interest waned and very little progress was made until the late 1990’s, when important advances were made, most famously Deep Blue’s defeat of Gary Kasparov in a chess match held in 1997.

Today, intelligent machines permeate daily life, from robots in factories to customer service agents to transmissions in cars to video games.  We rarely see it at work, but it’s there, under the hood. making our lives run a bit more smoothly.  Yet, even with the enormous progress, we’re still a long way from what was envisioned in 1956.

Heuristics and Chunking

As this Wired article shows, computers think much differently than you and I.  They can perform tasks according to rules, called heuristics, extremely quickly.  They sort through millions of possibilities in a matter of seconds and choose the single one that best fits a set of parameters.  This makes it possible to optimize a computer to do a some jobs much better than a human ever could.

We, on the other hand, have very slow processors.  While computer chips operate at the speed of light, our neurons run at the tortoise pace of about 200 miles per hour.  Yet, we do have an important advantage.  Our billions of organic processors can run in parallel, allowing us to excel at pattern recognition.

Psychologists call this chunking and it’s what accounts for high caliber human abilities. Even something as simple as catching a ball requires very complex multivariate computations, yet we do it with ease, on the run and with the sun in our eyes. Computerized robots have trouble navigating an ordinary room.

Moreover, our brains are constantly rewiring themselves as we gain experience.  As a CEO, Jack Welch was famous for his ability to analyze financial statements at a glance, yet no one noticed this ability as he was coming up.  His engineering degree had optimized him for other activities and it was only after years as a manager that he gained his financial acumen.

As Smart as We Want to Be

When you think about it we’re really lucky.  Our brains are incredible intelligence machines.  They are, as neurologist Antonio Damasio notes, able to internalize information even before we are consciously aware that we possess it and can learn new abilities as we come to need them.  We’re optimized for adaptation.

The catch is that in order to learn, we need to experience failure, fear and pain. Not all experiences are equal.  Emotional ones trigger the release of hormones that promote synapse building and memory.  Then we need to repeat the unpleasant activity to strengthen those new synaptic connections.  The result is what we call expertise.

So it’s not enough to simply observe.  We must, to paraphrase Teddy Roosevelt, get our faces marred with dust and sweat and blood, strive valiantly, err and come short again and again.  It’s a difficult business and it will be a long time before we can design computers to simulate it.

Intelligence is, after all, infinitely more than processing.

– Greg

15 Responses leave one →
  1. October 9, 2011

    Hi Greg, nice post about intelligence. I am a firm believer in emotional intelligence and somewhat baffled by the LACK of it in so many “Intelligent” people according to standard IQ tests. Have you noticed a negative correlation between high standard IQ scores and EI? I once worked for a CEO with a mind that worked like an excel spreadsheet – no comment about his EI LOL I don’t know you that well but I am fairly sure you score really high in both! 🙂

  2. monica permalink
    October 9, 2011

    That is something I have always wondered too. It is easy to understand but very difficult to express the true definition of intelligence. I think it is linked as per the different aspects and people of life. There cannot be a single set of information about the topic. A very bright and inspiring read. Keep it up.

  3. October 9, 2011

    Thanks Monica. Have a great week!

    – Greg

  4. October 14, 2011

    Great article!

    What is incredibly unique about the the human brain and what will probably be the utlimate barrier for artificial intelligence is a “little” something called emotions.

    If, on the one hand, one can build remarkable machines for performing rational tasks, on the other hand, one can still not build a machine that engages the most basic emotions. Thus the increasing importance of emotional intelligence. I believe that, in a not so distant future, emotional intelligence is what will differ us from machines.

    One example, any cheap computer can perform complex math calculations that would take hours for a human within seconds. Yet, you would need a truly supercomputer to interpret body language (if that was possible). “Any” human can process body language signs within miliseconds, however. That’s an emotional capability that we have.
    And it would be possible to go on and discuss such things as voice tones or sentiments, but I think my point was made! 😉


  5. October 14, 2011


    Good points Henrique, but I actually think the point goes somewhat further. Research by Antonio Damasio and others shows that emotions actually are essential to rationality. People who’ve had brain damage that affects their ability to emote also lose their ability to make decisions. They can understand the factors involved, but have no way to weight them.

    – Greg

  6. Robert Neuschul permalink
    October 16, 2011

    There’s a flaw in

    “People who’ve had brain damage that affects their ability to emote also lose their ability to make decisions. They can understand the factors involved, but have no way to weight them.”

    Since Damasio hasn’t [as far as I can tell] properly examined the control cases against which to assess this phenomenon it’s either fallacious or premature to conclude that emotional capability determines decision-making ability: such a control case might be be those who have grown up never having had the ability to display emotion – are they or are they not able to make decisions.

    Studies in autism – sufferers of which often tend to display significant degrees of reduction in [or total absence of] empathic and emotional response suggest such individuals are perfectly well able to make decisions, intelligent or otherwise.

    The missing conclusion here is that emotion and decision making have *become* entwined through a person’s life, and that there may in fact be some “injuries” with which the brain’s marvellous ability to refactor and rewire itself simply cannot cope. Learning and experience have too deeply graved themselves onto our functionality.

    It is, I think, far more helpful to think of “intelligence” as a field effect, an emergent property of all aspects of individual humans interacting and integrating together.
    Decision making isn’t by default vectored or modulated _only_ by emotion. There are other aspects of intelligence which can serve as modulators.

    Just over 100 years ago Ouspensky put forward the ‘theory’ that humans had 7 main ‘types’ of intelligence, with several other subsidiary forms [some of which prefigure the modern geneticists and AI researchers’ view of cellular automata].
    Ouspensky went on to describe the manner in which each of these forms matured, the speed at which they matured, and the way in which they variously interacted. He was perfectly clear that no ‘normal’ individual ever displays perfect and equal maturity in all aspects of intelligence at any one time: sometimes we are very logical/rational and emotionally stunted, other times we’re all passion and no logic; and yet other times hard-wired physiology rules us. His theory proposed that a perfectly mature intelligence which exhibited equal development across all aspects or modes of intelligence at all times was a Buddha or other transcendant being.

    Whilst Ouspensky’s views can’t be taken as scientific, there’s a remarkable amount of new neuroscience and psycho-biology et al. which seem to offer support for his views.

  7. October 16, 2011

    Nice to see you again, Robert.

    Just to be clear – Damasio’s research encompasses far more than his clinical work. Nevertheless, I agree that there’s far more to decision making than emotion. What I think is pertinent is that emotions are so critical to the process that the process fails without them.

    btw. Autistics do have emotions, but have problems with understanding the emotions of others.

    – Greg

  8. October 16, 2011

    A fascinating subject. Long back in my student days I spent three years of solid hard thinking about how to build a thinking machine. It was my hobby and my ambition to create one if I possibly could. I did not mean an intelligent machine – that is easy. I meant one that had values and knew what it was trying to achieve. Pattern recognition was the key, I thought. It was 1960 – 63 0r thereabouts.

    Ultimately I failed to determine the basic principles that would allow someone to create one. I enjoyed trying.

    I got this notion that to achieve this, the beast would have to be aware of itself and it would need to have emotions. That would be needed both to give it an objective or to teach it to avoid pain, and as something to limit what it was wanting to think about and to give direction to that.

    I am still not sure what to think is the reason for my failure. I am not one to give up easily and I certainly did not. But maybe as a comfort to myself, or maybe out of fear of what religions teach about the after-life, I put it down to the possibility (not certainty) that consciousness is a spiritual phenomenon. On that basis I was off the hook.

    When it came to the detail of my attempts to create a self-aware machine I tended to find myself passing information around inside the beast but never arriving at the final destination. One always seemed to need to go the next layer down. I have read that some theorists nowadays have come to the same conclusion. But not everyone agrees.

    Some say that if the machine is complex enough it will be self-aware. And do we assume that self awareness is a necessary prelude to the machine knowing what it wants to achieve? What would that be? And how would we ensure that it had some useful objective in mind when it came to creative thought?

    We can do that for a machine that can play a game of chess, but for a more general way of living or thinking, are we getting any closer?

    Sometimes I get excited at the thought that consciousness may be a spiritual thing – like here is the proof that there is life after death. But unfortunately I cannot totally rely upon that line of thought.

    Thanks Greg for the opportunity to discuss this and I look forward to further input coming from your readers. The subject is one of the most exciting and stimulating of all subjects.

  9. Robert Neuschul permalink
    October 16, 2011

    His Greg,

    Yes I accept what you say about the scope of Dalmatio’s work, and too with your comments about the nature of autism.

    You might find the following work by a colleague and friend interesting in this context; it’s about Judgement and how we exercise it.

    NB: I trust the move back to the US has gone OK.

  10. Malcolm Ryan permalink
    October 16, 2011

    “in order to learn, we need to experience failure, fear and pain”

    A.I. is already doing this. Take a look at research in the field of Reinforcement Learning and you’ll see a lot of work has gone into making computers that can adapt to failure.

  11. October 17, 2011

    Thx Edward. See you next time:.

    – Greg

  12. October 17, 2011

    Thx. I’ll check it out.

    As for the US, some bumps in the road but seems okay.

    – Greg

  13. October 17, 2011


    Thanks for the link. Yes, I am aware of the research and didn’t mean to suggest that I was the first person to think of it, but wanted to underline its importance.

    – Greg

  14. Y L Cheung permalink
    February 26, 2014

    Tons of iron and silicon with mega watts of power just won a single event with human brain on chess! And it calls intelligence?

    I do wonder two deep blue to play chess to each other. What is the statistic!

  15. February 26, 2014

    I’m not sure I get the question. Could you explain?

    – Greg

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