So what is intelligence? What is IQ? What makes one person smarter, and thus more deserving of reward, then another. Well, as Tim points out, and according to many psychologists its a magic number. Like a gypsy’s gaze into the crystal ball, this number, derived with suitably esoteric and “unbiased” (not!) scientific instrumentation, reveals all. Or does it? And, as Tim asks, can it? Can a simple number like 42 really reveal all the secrets of the human experience, or is just (as Douglas Adams has suggested) a big joke.
In the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a group of truth-seekers entreats Deep Thought, an artificially-intelligent supercomputer, to reveal the answer to the most elusive question in existence, “What is the meaning of life, the universe and everything?”
Deep Thought takes up the challenge, but warns that it will require no less than seven and a half million years to produce the answer. Given the scope of the challenge, Deep Thought’s petitioners accept the computer’s terms and leave it to their descendants to benefit from Deep Thought’s protracted ruminations. Finally, following eons of cogitation, Deep Thought stirs and announces, ominously, that the long-awaited answer is ready–but Deep Thought adds that the answer is unlikely to be a crowd-pleaser. Their patience at an end, Deep Thought’s supplicants insist that the computer unveil the monumental secret that they have waited so long and faithfully to hear. At that, Deep Thought heaves an electronic sigh and pronounces that the answer to the question of life, the universe and everything is…
As Deep Thought predicted, the assemblage reacts unfavorably to such a meaningless answer. Deep Thought fires back that the answer is perfect, rather the fault lies with the question: the answer, forty-two, is unintelligible only because his patrons never really understood their original question.
So, what does this have to do with artificial intelligence research? A lot, actually.
At this point, I should emphasize that I am a huge supporter of information technology and AI. The smarter that our technologies become, the more likely it is that we’ll be able to solve the many problems (e.g., war, famine, disease, natural disaster, pollution, energy shortages, etc.) that humanity faces.
That said, the conundrum that Deep Thought reveals (i.e., it is difficult to find the right answers if we don’t really understand our questions) is reminiscent of the challenges that AI researchers confront with regard to the definition of intelligence. AI researchers have a crystal clear vision of their ultimate goal: creating intelligent machines–just like that smart-aleck Deep Thought. The problem is that, AI researchers have at best a weak understanding the question, “What is intelligence?” For example, at present, one of the most widespread misperceptions about intelligence is that–get this!–intelligence can be represented as a number. Whereas Deep Thought contends that the answer to life, the universe and everything is forty-two, many intelligence experts are convinced that intelligence can be characterized as a single number; a.k.a., an IQ score. If I didn’t know better, I’d be sure that this was another one of Douglas Adams’ jokes.
It makes about as much sense to say that intelligence is equivalent to a score of 81, 97, 112, or 250 as it does to claim that the meaning of life, the universe and everything is 42. The difference between these assertions is that Douglas Adams was joking, whereas psychometricians are serious. Aww, c’mon, there’s got to be a camera hidden somewhere.
But, here’s the best part. In the Hitchhiker’s Guide, Deep Thought hatches a bold plan to solve the problem of “how to understand the question”; it’s another joke, but it contains a marvelous kernel of truth. Deep Thought creates the most sophisticated computer in the universe (i.e., the earth) and runs a multi-billion year program (i.e., the evolution of life on earth) through which to create organisms (i.e., humans) who develop the necessary mental faculties to understand the meaning of existence. Thus, the moral of the story is that the answer lies within. It simply takes the necessary wisdom to understand the question.
The only snag is that, at the very moment that humans finally achieve enlightenment, a bunch of Vogons blast the earth into cosmic dust. There’s a lesson in that, too. Humans have always relied on their brains for survival. So, now and forever, humanity has got to continue getting smarter or we’ll end up being obliterated by our problems.
The point of all this is that, if we try hard enough, humans will surely be able to figure out the meaning of life, the universe and everything–and also the key to artificial intelligence. The trick is to seek the real, hidden knowledge that lies behind otherwise meaningless numbers.
About the Author: Tim McGettigan is a professor of sociology at Colorado State University – Pueblo. The Socjournal is an outstanding resource for all things sociological. Too often, the media examines social issues from a singularly economic perspective. If you really want to understand how the social world works, it's better to use a broader, clearer lens. In this column, I will discuss a variety of forces (technological, scientific, political, cultural, and, yeah okay, economic) that are currently reshaping the globe. Whether or not the world is changing for the better is an open question — and, thus, it's a question that I look forward to debating at length in this column.