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

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

Alex Wissner-Gross – 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.

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.

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