Intelligent Design. What Does It Mean?

Some time ago, I made a post “Created or Evolved?” arguing that technology which is thought to be created, in fact, does not have a specific creator and rather evolves.

In my previous post, “Intelligence is in the Eye of the Beholder“, I pointed out that the term intelligence refers to the level of complexity.  The term intelligent is usually reserved for systems complex enough that we don’t quite understand their behavior.  Once we fully understand the system behavior, the illusion of intelligence disappears.  This is why, although we have very complex devices today doing very sophisticated things, it is still believed that “artificial intelligence” (AI, for short) is still in the future.  I think, it will always be.

Another necessary feature of intelligence is a perceived purpose.  If we don’t see a purpose in system’s behavior, we don’t call the system intelligent.

Now, let’s put the pieces together and answer the question, was the world intelligently designed by a creator or has it evolved?  Since even things created by humans do not have a single creator and rely on fusion of ideas to evolve from simple to complex, the world has, certainly, evolved.  However, when a system appears to have a purpose and we do not fully understand how it works, we tend to consider it intelligent or designed by an intelligent agent. And the world does seem to fit this description.

Intelligence is in the Eye of the Beholder

SelfAwarePatterns has recently made a post titled “Let artificial intelligence evolve? Probably fruitless, possibly dangerous” arguing that if we want to create intelligent machines, we must let them survive in the real world and let them evolve.  I made a comment that may be worth turning into a post.

I said

Intelligence is in the eye of the beholder. “Intelligence”, perhaps, refers to the level of complexity. When a machine is complex enough that we do not understand how it makes decisions to do certain things, we call it “intelligent”. But when we understand how machine’s actions are triggered, the impression of “intelligence” disappears.

For instance, my smartphone may suddenly tell me: “Hey, if you want to be in time for that meeting, you’d better start now and, by the way, avoid that highway – there is an accident near exit 69.” That’s intelligent, right? How did it come up with such a timely and useful message? But, of course, the smartphone “knows” about the time and place of my next meeting from my Google Calendar. It also knows my current location from GPS and can calculate how long it takes to get to the meeting using Google Maps. It also knows about the traffic based on the information from thousands of smartphones on the road aggregated at the Google server. The smartphone does not just “decide” that this message would be useful to me. The smartphone knows nothing of being useful. It is programmed to do things that the designers of Google Now considered useful. So, if we don’t know all these things, the message appears intelligent. But if we do understand how things work, the impression of “intelligence” disappears.

However complex the machine, if it exists, humans (at least, some) must understand how it works. Perhaps, nobody individually, but collectively, there will be a group of experts whose knowledge covers all aspects of the machine. So, perhaps, existing machines will be never considered “intelligent” and the term “intelligent” will always be reserved for some mysterious “next generation”. Of course, nobody has an idea what the next generation of machines will do. So, it’s quite appropriate. On the other hand, we might as well consider that the AI already exists because what I described in my example would certainly blow my mind 20 years ago.

Another thought. “Intelligence” implies purpose. There are very complex natural systems with very complex behavior. But unless they do something that appears useful or purposeful to humans, they are never called “intelligent”. The term “intelligence” seems to be closely related to goal setting and decision making and, therefore, to the question of free will. Before we answer whether machines can be intelligent, we need to answer whether humans are intelligent themselves or are mere automatons. And there is no answer to this question. It’s a matter of philosophical worldview.


Created or Evolved?

Yet another post on the jaded topic of creation vs. evolution.  This time, however, I will not question whether humans evolved.  I’d like to consider what we mean when we say that things such as TV sets, computers, cars, pencils, and anything else created by humans have a creator.  And I would like to defend the following thesis:

Technogy does not have a creator. Technology evolved.

This thought occured to me when I watched the Matt Ridley’s TED talk “When Ideas Have Sex” where he draws an analogy between evolution of living beings and evolution of ideas.   What do we mean when we say that a TV set was “created”?  Perhaps, it was built by workers in a Chinese factory.  Have the workers created the TV set?  Perhaps, they have no idea how and why it works.  The workers, definitely, do not understand analog or digital signal processing, video codecs, or physics of radio transmission.  But people who understand those things, have no understanding of PCB assembly or plastics manufacturing.  Neither workers nor the TV designers understand the semiconductor device physics or the chemistry  involved in semiconductor processing.  So, who can be called a creator of a TV? Or, more specifically, a creator of your particular TV set?

This can be said not only about high technologies, but about anything “created” by human beings.  Matt Ridley uses a low-tech pencil as an example:

I am of course quoting from a famous essay by Leonard Read, the economist in the 1950s, called “I, Pencil” in which he wrote about how a pencil came to be made, and how nobody knows even how to make a pencil, because the people who assemble it don’t know how to mine graphite, and they don’t know how to fell trees and that kind of thing. And what we’ve done in human society, through exchange and specialization, is we’ve created the ability to do things that we don’t even understand. It’s not the same with language. With language we have to transfer ideas that we understand with each other. But with technology, we can actually do things that are beyond our capabilities.

This thought occured to me at work.  My task was to test reliability of a new integrated circuit designed by the company I work for.  I myself have a very vague understanding of how these tests are done.  We hire a subcontractor company to run these reliability tests.  But I need to tell the subcontractor how to turn on the chip.  I came to the designer for instructions.  The designer explained to me, which capacitors need to be attached to the device under test.  He also said that to turn on the analog portion of the chip, I need to send a command to the on-chip processor.  What command?  How to send it?  He had no idea.  He used a computer program to do that, and the program was written by software engineers.  What I carried out from this experience is that there is not a single person in the company who can tell me how the product works.  The chip does not have a creator.  But it does work!

It appears to me that when people talk about evolution and creation, they talk about the same damn thing, from a little different perspectives.

Any thoughts?

P.S.  Another thought occured to me.  In creation vs. evolution debates, evolutionists frequently say that evolution is supported by paleontology which proves that organisms historically appeared in a certain order.  They say that if creationism were true, we could, potentially, find fossils of dinosaurs predating any known fossils of mollusks.  But isn’t the same true of technology which is, undoubtedly, considered a human creation?  Technological advances happen in certain order.  E.g. a car cannot be invented before people discover a combustion engine, learn technology to process metals, obtain gasoline from oil, build roads, etc.

Moreover, when conditions are ripe for a certain technology to emerge, similar discoveries are often independently made by several people, often in different parts of the world.  This means that if one scientist does not make the discovery, another will.  And this seems inevitable.  So, the will or the talent of individual scientists are irrelevant.  Which also seem to support the idea that technological progress evolves independently from human will.