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What actually is intelligence? Do we understand it?

What actually is intelligence? Do we understand it?
There are many well known aspects of it – for example memory, calculation, the capacity to reason, plan, solve problems, think abstractly, comprehend ideas and language, and of course learn. But do we really understand all of the elements of intelligence? We have recreated (and developed further) memory and calculation in computer technology but do we understand the other attributes to the same degree?

Jennifer Mitchell from Dorset (Age 25-34)

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2 Responses

  1. Hello Jennifer

    A very good question, and not easy to answer. Part of the problem is that we tend to think in terms of human intelligence, as you’ve outlined in your question, and understanding all facets of human intelligence is a very hard problem for science. Thus, for human intelligence the answer to your question is, in my view, no mostly we do not understand it.

    However, let’s think about animal intelligence. A colleague in the Bristol Robotics Labs came up with a very good working definition of ‘intelligence’ a few years ago. He said “Intelligence is doing the right thing at the right time”. For animals, especially at the simpler end of the spectrum of life, this definition of intelligence works very well. A smart animal is one that knows when to run away (otherwise it will get eaten), how to get food itself (otherwise it will starve) and when and how to mate and reproduce (a tricky process even for simple animals!). You might say that these are just instinctive behaviours and that’s true – they don’t require reasoning or planning or abstract thought. But they still – I would argue – add up to intelligence.

    Since the mid 1980s roboticists have been trying to build simple animal like robots (sometimes called artificial life) – in a sense starting with the simplest forms of life, rather than by trying to build humanoid robots. In this way – by building what are in effect working models – we are starting to understand what animal intelligence is.

    My own work is concerned with Swarm Intelligence – the kind of intelligence that allows swarms of, for instance, social insects to build amazing nests or colonies, with air conditioning and nurseries (think of a termite mound). By studying these natural systems and by building working models (swarm of robots) we are starting to understand what swarm intelligence is, and how it works.

    Thus, for simple* animals I think the answer to your question is, yes we are beginning to understand what intelligence is.

    *simple relative to humans! Even insects are far from simple!

  2. I think there’s an excellent insight on how we are discovering the rules of insect intelligence in a conference talk given by Deborah Gordon called “How do ants know what to do?”. You can watch the talk here:

    I hope that’s of interest!

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