Monday, April 28, 2014

What Makes an Alien Intelligent?

That’s the point of a recent paper in Acta Astronautica by the dolphin-behavior researcher Denise Herzing. She warns against the seductive tendency to turn the question of a creature’s intelligence into one about how similar that creature is to humans. Instead, she writes, we need “a non-human biased definition and measure of intelligence.” This would allow us to identify signs of intelligent life that a human-centric explorer might overlook—for instance, in creatures without limbs to manipulate their surroundings, mouths to make sounds, or even brains to process information. (After all, microbes and plants learn about and react to their environments.)

Herzing’s paper proposes five indicators of intelligence that any given species or machine (she includes artificial intelligence in her assessment) might combine in its own way: first, the size of the subject’s brain (if it has one) relative to the rest of the body; second, the extent to which an entity sends and receives information; third, the degree to which individual members of a species are distinct from one another; fourth, the complexity of the being’s social life; and, fifth, the amount of interaction it has with members of other species. One way to be intelligent is to score high on all five measures, as dolphins do, for instance. Dolphins’ brains are more than four times larger than they “should” be for their body size (only humans have a higher “encephalization quotient,” as this ratio is called). Dolphins send and receive a great deal of information through their sounds and gestures. Each dolphin is a unique individual, with a personality and style that makes it easy to distinguish it from others. Dolphins have elaborate social lives. Finally, dolphins interact in varied ways with other species—with Herzing and her colleagues, for example, and also with other dolphin species, fish, and sharks—instead of ignoring them.

Of course, it’s kind of discouraging to think the human race could spend so much hope and effort on the search for life only to find roving wave-lattices and other beings that won’t, or can’t, talk with us. But you can also see the expansion of our quest for intelligence as exhilarating. It raises the possibility that life out there will be interestingly, perhaps shockingly, different. The alternative possibility is that the problems of life and intelligence are the same everywhere, which means that evolution will keep converging on the same answer on Earth and on any other planet—and what could be less encouraging of space travel than the thought that the journey’s end would reveal more of the same? Better to wrestle at the edges of comprehension than to expect, as Wallace Stevens once wrote of Heaven, “that they should wear our colors there, and pluck the strings of our insipid lutes.”

- More Here

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