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robbyI am engaged in research in the presently nascent field of artificial intelligence. I also do some work along the lines of artificial life and evolutionary software. One consequence of this is that I am often exposed to opinions and ideas from others with the same interests. Here, I’m going to take on – and take down – one of the less well thought-out ideas that are currently making the rounds; that idea that, in order to have intelligence, that device must also have a body.

Where does this idea come from, you may ask? Professor Alan Winfield, Hewlett Packard professor of electronic engineering at the University of the West of England, says “embodiment is a fundamental requirement of intelligence in general” “a disembodied intelligence doesn’t make sense.” Susan Greenfield, professor of pharmacology at Oxford University’s Lincoln College, says “My own view is that you can’t disembody the brain.”

So there’s the setup, as it were. Here’s the knockdown.

If a person is born deaf, do they fail to develop intelligence? No. If deaf and blind? No. If deaf, dumb and blind? No. Further, if a deaf, dumb and blind person suffers a spinal injury and loses nervous system contact with the body, do they suddenly become unintelligent? No. And so it goes. Intelligence is not about any particular sense, and it is not about mobility, nor, in the end, is it about structure.

In a (horrible, sorry) example, if I could support your brain’s nutritional requirements (a matter of circulating properly prepared blood plasma) and gently, using anesthetics and various healing techniques, extract your brain from your skull along with whatever few bodily widgets that also directly affect your thinking (a few glands here and there, primarily), you’d still be intelligent. You’d probably be pretty unhappy, and perhaps you’d go insane sooner rather than later, but insanity is still a consequence of intelligence – it takes a lot of thinking power to support an illusory image of the world when your previous experience has taught you differently – and even more, to believe and act within the bounds of that illusion.

Furthermore, I could surgically remove a good bit of that brain – the parts governing your breathing, your heartbeat, your sense of balance, pain… quite a list, actually – and you would still be able to demonstrate that you are intelligent. In another (horrible) example, surgical procedures from frontal lobotomies to accidents and diseases that remove huge chunks of the brain, it is trivial to demonstrate that most of the brain isn’t required for intelligence to remain a product of the structure.


hydrobrainOne of my favorite (also horrible) examples is this poor English fellow who was born with a problem of excess fluid in his skull. They inserted a tap, he grew up essentially normally, and the tap was removed at age 14 for whatever reason. But when, as an adult many years later, his head was scanned, it was found that the fluid problem had returned, and that his brain was occupying a very small fraction of the space inside his skull. Of the four images at the right, the left side is him, and the right side is a normal brain.

Was this fellow still intelligent? Yes, absolutely. His IQ tests returned a score of about 75; he had a wife and two children and worked as a civil servant. So this is a solid example that shows that the argument that we must have a cell count equivalent to a normal human brain in order for intelligence to exist is also shown to be absolutely false. It also brings up some very interesting questions about animal (non-human animals, I mean) intelligence based on brain volume. Which I will spare you in this post out of the kindness of my heart.

So clearly, intelligence is strictly an intrinsic, emergent function of just the brain. It is about the ability to conceive ideas; to remember states like feelings and concepts; to recall these, or build upon them, or use them to alter the building of something else, that defines actual intelligence. Memory, induction, reduction, deduction, classification… these sorts of things.

Yes, certainly, we’re used to intelligence being most obvious when presented to us in classic human form. But the fact is, this is correlation; not causation. The above explanations demonstrate why.

Now, I’m not disputing that we got our intelligence in the course of evolving bodies and senses and so forth; but that process has been and gone, and now we have our intelligence, and experience with the disabled unquestionably shows that even if evolution required bodies for its development process, the actual result does not.

Submersing yourself in an isolation tank and losing all sense of input and output doesn’t instantly make you unintelligent. Because those things are irrelevant to the mechanism that intelligence manifests itself from; they’re just input channels intelligence can usefully process which is in no way the same as intelligence itself. Left to your own devices in such a tank, you will process information you already have, or perhaps create new information and process it. So again, it is very clear that intelligence is a product of the brain and the brain alone.

I think I’ve solidly established that the problem of AI is not related to bodies in any way, shape or form. So what is the problem of AI, then? Well, it is both considerably simpler than that, and much, much more difficult.

For intelligence to be recognized by us, it will need input to think about, and output to communicate what it has thought so we may be aware that it is thinking (and likely so that it is aware that we are there and we are so aware, thus creating an interaction, hopefully a useful one.)

This is trivial. Feed it text, and take text output. You now have something infinitely more capable than a blind, deaf, dumb, spinally injured human being – something with broadly capable input and output communications methods. Perhaps equivalent to a chat window open to someone isolated in the arctic, or in space. There’s no serious limit to what you can communicate using this method. Some things are tougher than others, and individual abilities vary, but even the least articulate among us – whose presence is painfully obvious on Internet chat boards, I might add – are generally acknowledged to still be intelligent in every sense of the word.

Even if there’s something you find you can’t describe in such a channel, or that cannot be described to you by the entity on the other end, this does not in itself indicate that intelligence is not present.

So one perfectly acceptable version of the AI task is: Create a mind with (at least) those input and output methods. And there is the problem of AI, isolated properly, the incorrect “needs a body” argument fully disposed of, and all the issues of body and bodily senses disposed of.

Solve the actual AI problem, and be a hero. And there is every indication it will be solved.

I say that because there is nothing known about the human brain that even hints at capabilities that cannot be performed by digital systems, or that hints at components that work in ways not completely known to us via our current understanding of physics.

Speed isn’t even really an honest issue – if I give you an answer, intelligently derived, in a minute, or the same answer a day later, or the same answer a century later, that answer is no less intelligent in any of the three cases, it just becomes more of a communications and social problem as more time passes.

Hence it is obvious that once a set of working algorithms are discovered, we can turn around and trivially determine the minimum acceptable hardware set for those. Which I suspect is already sitting on some people’s desks, or could be.

As I write this in October of 2010, a terabyte of slow storage is about $60, and a GB of 1 GHz RAM is about $40.00 (both are US dollar prices.) CPUs can easily address 4 GB with a 32 bit address buss, and 16 billion gigabytes with a 64-bit bus, which is what my own desktop, a Mac Pro, uses. In a 64-bit environment, eight bytes suffices to create a link to any kind of data anywhere in the CPU’s RAM address space; and data structures can be anything at all, with as many links in, out or both as needed. Text is trivially stored as one character per byte, and can be losslessly compressed to many times less than that if the time loss in such a compression is acceptable.

A little hackery requiring technical skills at about the level of any reasonable EE graduate, and it’s just a matter of money making all that RAM and pretty much any amount of slow storage you can imagine available to a CPU.

The fact that we haven’t solved the AI problem yet is, I think, more of a reflection that we don’t understand the problem than it is that the problem itself cannot be solved. Consider the two academics I quoted at the start of this post; it boggles my mind that they have failed to work out the flaws in their argument, and yet, there they are, proceeding from an entirely false premise and therefore making the task even more complex than it already is. Perhaps they will come across my post here. I hope so.

As always, I welcome serious comments.