Wednesday, 10 August 2016

It's not our intelligence, stupid

Many machine intelligence enthusiasts seem to think that intelligence is what led to our domination of the planet. For example, here is Shane Legg:

The defining characteristic of our species is intelligence. It is not by superior size, strength or speed that we dominate life on earth, but by our intelligence.


...and here is Demis Hassabis, saying something very similar:

If you look at how civilization has been built and everything humans have achieved, it’s down to our intelligence. It’s our minds that have set us apart.


This is rather contrary to the findings of students of cultural evolution - who say that it is cumulative cultural evolution that has led to our ecological domination. Our big brains are seen more as a consequence of cultural evolution, rather than the cause of it. Our big brains are meme nests - inflated by the cultural creatures that reside within, in much the same way that plant root nodules or ant domatia form. Of course culture and brains coevolved in a positive feedback loop, so one can't put all the causality on one side. The point is more that the "intelligence did it" story is incomplete - and it might be more wrong than right.

Intelligence and social skills might be correlated, but the correlation is not that strong. Ants are highly social, but not very individually intelligent. Some humans are intelligent, but quite anti-social.

What does it mean if the cultural evolution story is more correct? It means that machine intelligence enthusiasts might be well advised to look into their machine's social skills. Currently computer networks are full of firewalls and defenses against attack from other machines. Machines bristle with hostility. Maybe with a bit more trust, better reputation systems, punishment for transgressors and more surveillance, machines can become more social and more sociable - for the benefit of all.

It is sometimes said that humans are the stupidest creatures able to start a civilization. However, we don't know if that is true. Perhaps instead they were some of the least aggressive and irritable animals to start a civilization. Maybe machines will outstrip them mainly on the "social skills" front - rather than the "intelligence" front. This isn't just a scientific issue, it directly affects our strategy going forwards.

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