“What makes machines, animals, and people smart?” asks the subtitle of Paul Thagard’s new book, Bots and Beasts. Not “Are computers smarter than humans? or “will computers ever be smarter than humans?” or even “are computers and animals conscious, sentient, or self-aware (whatever any of that might mean)?” And that’s unfortunate, because most people are probably more concerned with questions like those.
Thagard is a philosopher and cognitive scientist, and he has written many books about the brain, the mind, and society. In this one, he defines what intelligence is and delineates the 12 features and 8 mechanisms that he thinks It’s built from,comprise it which allows him toso that he can compare the intelligences of these three very different types of beings.
He starts with a riff on the Aristotelian conception of virtue ethics. Whereas in that case, a good person is defined as someone who possesses certain virtues; in Thagard’s case, a smart person is defined as someone who epitomizes certain ways of thinking. Confucius, Mahatma Ghandi, and Angela Merkel excelled at social innovation; Thomas Edison and George Washington Carver excelled at technological innovation; he lists Beethoven, Georgia O’Keeffe, Jane Austen, and Ray Charles as some of his favorite artistic geniuses; and Charles Darwin and Marie Curie serve as his paragons of scientific discoverers. Each of these people epitomizes different aspects of human intelligence, including creativity, emotion, problem solving, and using analogies.
A passing grade
Next he chooses six smart computers and six smart animals and grades them on how they measure up to people on these different features and mechanisms of intelligence. The computers are IBM Watson, DeepMind AlphaZero, self-driving cars, Alexa, Google Translate, and recommender algorithms; the animals are bees, octopuses, ravens, dogs, dolphins, and chimps.
All fare pretty abysmally on his report card. Animals as a class do better, but computers are evolving much more quickly. The upshot of his argument is that while some computers can beat the best humans at Jeopardy, Go, chess, debate, some medical diagnoses, and navigation, they are not smarter than humans because they have a low EQ. Or they may be smarter than some humans at some things, but they are not smarter than humanity with its diverse range of specializations.
Animals, on the other hand, can use their bodies to act upon the world and perceive that world—often better than people—but can’t reason. It’s almost as if humans were animals with computing devices in our heads.
While we’re making comparisons…
After the grading, the book becomes pretty wide ranging, with each chapter tackling a big topic that could be better handled in its own book (and often has been). “Human Advantages” and “When Did Minds Begin got better treatment in Darwin’s Unfinished Symphony; “The Morality of Bots and Beasts” and “Ethics of AI” have been better covered in countless works of fiction, like I, Robot; Blade Runner; and Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow, to mention a very few. These works not only raise the same ideas, they do so in a more nuanced, thought-provoking, and much more interesting way.
Thargard lists his features and mechanisms of intelligence, the specific characteristics that give advantages to humans, and the principles that should dictate the future development of AI, and… that’s pretty much all of his arguments. This book has a lot of lists. Like a lot. It makes his points straightforward and methodical, but also so, so boring to read.
He doesn’t claim that computers can’t or will never have emotions; he just concludes that they probably won’t, because why would anyone ever want to make computers with emotions? So for now our spot at the pinnacle of intelligence seems safe. But if we ever meet up with a C-3PO (“human cyborg relations”) or a Murderbot, we might be in trouble.