Intelligence, Life, and …Perception

Let's briefly consider the question of what intelligence is in the context of machines (specifically computers for this article). Intelligence, by itself, is loosely defined as an ability to comprehend or perceive - but in more concrete terms it is the ability for logic, "abstract" thought, problem solving, and retention of knowledge to be applied to future situations to change default behaviors. We used to believe that intelligence was a human characteristic; however we have by now (reluctantly) admitted it exists in many non-human animals and recently have implemented computer systems and algorithms to mimic this behavior in machines. This proactive, or anticipatory ability is what we have deemed "artificial intelligence". You might have heard of machine learning, and leveling that up one step we are also starting to commonly see usage of complicated algorithms called artificial neural networks. These algorithm mimic the thought processes of the human brain and "learn" through a multitude of example data inputs to make decisions based on a large and varied number of inputs. Mathematicians struggle to concretely describe how these neural networks function, which speaks to their progressive similarity to biological neural networks and the blurring of the definition of "machine" and possibly "life".

Computers, and computing networks, are considered "artificial" systems, which means they are created by humans instead of occurring naturally.  An important question might be whether these systems are alive.  Let's dig just a bit deeper to look at what it means to be alive. This is a historically controversial area -- the definition of life has changed throughout modern history as we discover more and more corner cases such as viruses, self-replicating proteins, etc.  Let's assume we are going to use the following commonly accepted, biologically-focused, definition and dig one step deeper.


organisms that maintain homeostasis, are composed of cells, undergo metabolism, can grow and adapt to their environment, respond to stimuli, and reproduce

  1. Homeostasis
    For those of you who haven't heard this term since high school biology let's do a quick refresher - it is the property of a system in which a variable (or property) is actively regulated to remain very nearly constant. It was originally used in reference to living systems, but is now commonly now applied to all sorts of mechanical systems and sensors. Items such as thermostats are in essence a regulator that helps achieve homeostasis of the temperature of a home. There would be little argument today that computers can monitor and maintain constant outcomes in response to environmental and other events. If we take this one step further, we could assume that items that are alive maintain homeostasis for their own self-benefit. This is exemplified in computer programs that utilize sensor data to preserve the state, memory, or functionality of the machine - from slowing down a CPU that is overheating to balance maintenance in walking robots, etc.
  2. Composed of cells
    A cell is the smallest self-sufficient structural and functional unit of an organism, usually considered to have a bounding area and be a small group acting as a unit within a larger organization. This is easily extrapolated to a programming unit in computers - for instance a programmatic function. Programs are self-contained, have a well-defined boundary, interaction with outside units, and work together to form part of a larger whole - the computer. The function itself is just a small, critical, piece of that computer program - like RNA is to a cell.  In fact, it is just as portable and replicable as RNA given modern computing library distribution techniques.
  3. Metabolize
    This is the process of changing of fuel into a form that can be used by the organism - or in general terms the consumption of energy. Computer chips and other electronic circuits use electrical energy and store it in transistors. In the simplest sense this is the equivalent of flipping of digital "switches" or 1's and 0's to form the basis for machine code. We could therefore consider that computers are able to 'metabolize' electricity into a usable digital format.
  4. Grow and Adapt to Environment
    Computers, and machine programs in general, exist in an environment of data. Within this environment they can adapt to changes in data as well as grow in their use of storage and memory.
  5. Respond to Stimuli
    It's hard to argue that machines all around us respond to stimuli - from our phones responding to touch, to medical tests, to the vast growing array of IOT sensors - we have built machines and computer programs specifically to respond to simple and complex sets of stimuli in the environment to achieve diverse outcomes from airplane autopilot to medical laser surgery and beyond.
  6. Reproduce
    You might think - a-ha, we made it to the sticking point - machines (and computers) cannot reproduce. However, were you aware that we now have computers complex enough to build not only the next generation from raw materials, but that can improve on their own designs? Yes - check out these articles about self-repair and reproduction via 3D printing. It is arguable that perhaps this type of reproduction is even more advanced than human - as we are unable to purposely improve on our own flaws except through the choice of mate, the chance of genetics,  and eventual evolution.

So why, with logic pointing to the fact that computers are intelligent, and perhaps even alive, do we refuse to recognize this? Whether we admit, decide, or otherwise deem computers to be alive, they are progressing to the point where we are not only more reliant on them, but also falling behind in terms of intelligence. Computer programs (especially highly complex ones!) are collections of the best and brightest minds put together to produce something beyond any single human mind. How comfortable are we with this newer, bigger, collective intelligence? Our lives depend on these machines every day: the autopilot that flew the plane you were on, that MRI scan your doctor took to check on a cancer threat, and more. But how comfortable are we with collective intelligence and, by extension, collective decision making?

If computers are alive and intelligent, what separates them from personhood? It might be an issue solely of perception. Perhaps THAT is what we have that we have not yet been able to codify in computer programs or as a part of the collective knowledge base - the ability to perceive. We may have to admit we are no longer (individually) the most intelligent living things - however we do still have the perception to feel discomfort with that fact, and that is likely what sets us apart... for now.  Information is now being turned into knowledge by computers - transforming data into insights followed by meaningful action.  The next step in the continuum is the achievement of wisdom - or the understanding of complex consequences of those meaningful actions.  I leave it as an exercise for the reader to continue the intellectual exercise of pondering what types of advances in computing might allow us to assign the wisdom moniker...


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