Richard Yonck

The Intelligence Report

Rise of the Intelligent Machines (Part 1)

Will machines ever think?

Posted Jul 29, 2011

Clockwork gears

We are far from the only biological intelligence on the planet. Primates and cetaceans are certainly intelligent, even sentient. Few of us would quibble with that. If we step back a little further, even "lower" mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians display significant intelligence. Taken a bit further, we have little problem ascribing intelligence to insects and worms, even if it is, by our standards, rudimentary.

So how far back along our ancestral line can we take this? One of the earliest multi-celled animals, cnidarians, had the first neural net, a precursor to the far more complex brains that would come later. Can we go further still? Single-celled organisms such as paramecium and cyanobacteria can move in response to light, heat and chemical gradients. Is this intelligence? The better question might be, relative to what?

I'd argue that we could take this game considerably further, but let's stop here at a stage with it's roots firmly set 3.8 billion years ago. For the next 2 billion years, single-celled life would be the highest intelligence on this planet. Then more complex forms of life began to evolve. While the accompanying growth in intelligence was not entirely linear, nevertheless, there was a steadfast progression. Perhaps more importantly, this growth in morphological and intellectual complexity came about with increasing speed.

Humankind has been on this planet for around 2.5 million years, if we use Homo habilis as our starting point. This is less than one thousandth of the total time life has been on Earth. While we've been significant tool users from before that time, our next real burst of technological activity came about 50,000 years ago, concurrent with the development of complex language. After that, there were spurts and golden ages here and there, but from a modern perspective, things really got going during the European Renaissance and the Age of Enlightenment that followed.

Clocks and clockwork gadgets, mechanical toys, simple adding machines. These seem quaint now, but were among the height of scientific achievements of the day. So modern were these technologies that they became metaphors for our mental processes. The brain was conceived as being composed of myriad clockwork gears churning out our thoughts.

As technology advanced, so too did our metaphors. Hydraulics. Telegraph lines. Relays. Computers. In each era, the most complex and miraculous of our new technologies served also as our map for understanding the much greater complexities of the brain. While all of these metaphors were far from accurate, they did acknowledge a link between the biological processes of our intelligence and the technological processes of our machines.

Our understanding of the brain continues to grow with each passing day. This may eventually lead to emulating our intelligence in silicon or on some other substrate. At the same time, it's also becoming clear that higher machine intelligence needn't necessarily be based on existing biological structures. In other words, there's more than one path technology can take on the journey to higher thought.

The advance of technology is accelerating, bringing with it machines that can outperform human beings in a rapidly growing number of arenas. Pattern recognition systems that sort images, pick out faces in crowds, identify anomalous behaviors. Supercomputers that play chess better than a person ever could. Knowledge systems such as IBM's Watson, which recently beat two of the all-time champions of the game show, Jeopardy.

Yes, each of these represents a small subset of the vast array of human intelligences. But step by step, we're being equaled and more importantly, surpassed. As we've seen in both biology and technology, this is a march that is taking place with ever more rapid strides. Complexity breeds still further complexity, cross-fertilizing itself into previously unconceived of combinations. The world is quickly approaching a time when humanity may come to share the world with an equal or greater intelligence. One that will have been of our own making.


(This multi-part series will explore the rise of machine intelligence, research and advances that will impact its development and what this may mean for the future of human intelligence. Next: How to Build a Brain)

* Yes, I said behaviors.