An Equation for Intelligence: Alex Wissner-Gross at TEDxBeaconStreet (Transcript)

Intelligence, what is it? If we take a look back at the history of how intelligence is being viewed, one seminal example has been Edsger Dijkstra’s famous quote that the question of whether a machine can think is about as interesting as the question of whether a submarine can swim. Now, Edsger Dijkstra, when he wrote this, intended it as a criticism of early pioneers of computer science like Alan Turing.

However, if you take a look back and think about what have been the most empowering innovations that enabled us to build artificial machines that swim and artificial machines that fly, you find that it was only through understanding the underlying physical mechanisms of swimming and flight that we were able to build these machines.

And so, several years ago, I undertook a program to try to understand the fundamental physical mechanisms underlying intelligence. Let’s take a step back. Let’s first begin with a thought experiment. Pretend that you’re an alien race that doesn’t know anything about Earth biology or Earth neuroscience or Earth intelligence, but you have amazing telescopes and you’re able to watch the Earth and you have amazingly long lives so you’re able to watch the Earth over millions, even billions of years.

And you observe a really strange effect, you observe that over the course of the millennia, Earth is continually bombarded with asteroids up until a point and that at some point, corresponding roughly to our year 2000 AD, asteroids that are on a collision course with the Earth, that otherwise would have collided, mysteriously get deflected or detonate before they can hit the Earth.

Now, of course, as Earthlings, we know the reason would be that we’re trying to save ourselves, we’re trying to prevent an impact. But if you’re an alien race that doesn’t know any of this, that doesn’t have any concept of Earth intelligence, you’d be forced to put together a physical theory that explains how, up until a certain point in time, asteroids that would demolish the surface of the planet, mysteriously stop doing that. So, I claim that this is the same question as understanding the physical nature of intelligence.

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So, in this program that I undertook years ago, I’ve looked at a variety of different threads in crossed science across a variety of disciplines, pointing, I think, towards a single underlying mechanism for intelligence. In cosmology, for example, there has been a variety of different threads of evidence that our universe appears to be finely tuned for the development of intelligence, and in particular, for the development of universal states that maximize the diversity of possible futures.

In gameplay, for example in Go, everyone remembers in 1997 when IBM’s Deep Blue beat Gary Kasparov at chess. Fewer people are aware that in the past ten year or so, the game of Go, arguably a much more challenging game because it has a much higher branching factor, has also started to succumb to computer game players for the same reason. The best techniques, right now, for computers playing Go, are techniques that try to maximize future options during gameplay.

Finally, in robotic motion planning, there has been a variety of recent techniques that have tried to take advantage of abilities of robots to maximize future freedom of action in order to accomplish complex tasks. And so, taking all of these different threads and putting them together, I asked, starting several years ago, is there an underlying mechanism for intelligence that we can factor out of all of these different threads? Is there, as it were, a single equation for intelligence? And the answer, I believe, is yes.

What you’re seeing is probably the closest equivalent to an E=mc2 for intelligence that I certainly have ever seen. So, what you’re seeing here is a statement of correspondence that intelligence is a Force (F) that acts so as to maximize future freedom of action. It acts to maximize future freedom of action or keep options open with some strength (T), with the amount of the diversity of possible accessible futures (S), up to some future time horizon (Ƭ). In short, intelligence doesn’t like to get trapped, intelligence tries to maximize future freedom of action and keep options open.

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And so, given this one equation it’s natural to ask: So, what can you do with this? How predictive is it? Does it predict human-level intelligence? Does it predict artificial intelligence? So, I’m going to show you now a video that will, I think, demonstrate some of the amazing applications of just this single equation.

(Video clip: Recent research in cosmology has suggested that universes that produce more disorder or “entropy” over their lifetimes should tend to have more favorable conditions for the existence of intelligent beings such as ourselves. But what if that tentative cosmological connection between entropy and intelligence hints at a deeper relationship? What if intelligent behavior doesn’t just correlate with the production of long-term entropy, but actually emerges directly from it? To find out, we developed a software engine called ENTROPICA designed to maximize the production of long-term entropy of any system that it finds itself in. Amazingly, ENTROPICA was able to pass multiple animal intelligence tests, play human games and even earn money trading stocks; all without being instructed to do so. Here are some examples of ENTROPICA in action: just like a human standing upright without falling over, here we see ENTROPICA automatically balancing a pole using a cart. This behavior is remarkable, in part, because we never gave ENTROPICA a goal, it simply decided on its own to balance the pole.

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