Expanding our understanding of intelligence

Resources used to create this essay:

In 2007, a woman married the Eiffel Tower.

“Her structure is just amazing. You know, she’s got subtle, subtle curves”.


How about a guy from Washington who has finally settled down with his long-term lover, ‘Vanilla’, after thousands of sexual partners..

Vanilla is not a woman, nor a man.

Vanilla is a Volkswagen Beetle.

And the ‘thousands of other sexual partners’, they were also of the four-wheeled variety.

Jaguars, Mustangs, Range Rovers etc.

“I will not deny that I look at other cars on TV or at shows and still get those old impulses and desires – but those were the early days. Now I want to settle down with Vanilla.”

Objectophilia is a form of sexuality focused on particular inanimate objects. Individuals with this orientation feel romantic or sexual attraction to items like buildings, cars, or pieces of furniture.

Objectophilia is the extreme end of the spectrum. Which (I’m assuming), often has a lot to do with deep-rooted psychological stuff.

However, the point here isn’t to label sexual attraction to cars or large steel structures as good or bad – it’s to highlight that we humans love projecting human-ness onto non-human things.

Last week, driving home along the east coast of Australia in my Volkswagen Amarok (we’re just friends of course), I stopped for a coffee and fuel.

After the stop, immersed in a new Rick Rubin podcast, I typed an incorrect location into Google Maps driving half hour in the wrong direction.

For the next three hours, I brewed up a sulky hatred toward the familiar female voice of Google Maps. She had clearly betrayed my trust and our friendship by not correcting my direction.

My Google voice assistant has the human-ness of a rock.

It’s a simple text-to-audio mechanism.

Regardless, this information doesn’t stop me from feeling all the feels of a fully-grown human companion.

And this has some serious implications on our understanding of the world, and all its complexities.

And for this essay specifically, on our understanding of intelligence.

What is Intelligence?

Binary categories are bad.

It’s another thing we humans enjoy – the application of simple, binary categories to things that aren’t simple or binary – things like intelligence.

Binary categories make stuff easier to talk about, but they often lead to big and problematic oversimplifications.

Over the past Century, we’ve constructed a story about intelligence.

That it’s largely the product of complex human-like brains. 

We collect knowledge and apply that knowledge to solving humany-problems and achieving humany-goals in three-dimensional, humany-space.

Which makes sense.

From a species survival standpoint, we’re concerned primarily with the things in three-dimensional space that we can eat, get eaten by and hump.

William James taught us that intelligence is ‘the ability to get to the same goal by different means’.

With this consideration in mind, intelligence exists everywhere.

Not just in the firings between neurons in your brain, but throughout your body and your nervous system, and between the bodies and nervous systems of everyone and everything around you.

It exists throughout countless other biological creatures and critters and substrates, throughout plants, in mycelial networks and in different anatomical space.

Think cellular intelligence, collective intelligence and computational intelligence.

And we’re only just scratching the surface.

It’s worth pointing out that this idea that intelligence permeates everything isn’t a new one.

Many cultures outside the West, whether intuitively or scientifically, have no trouble viewing intelligence as fundamental throughout the universe in many different forms.

One of the great East-to-West philosophers Allan Watts spoke endlessly of this idea. 

Michael Levin

At Tufts University, Michael Levin’s Lab is doing some whacky shit.

A few years ago, they manipulated bioelectric signals in frog embryos, changing development patterns and encouraging tadpoles to grow fully functioning eyeballs out of their tails.

They’ve even taken skin cells from frog embryos and shown they can ‘reboot’ these cells into new kinds of organisms, not just frogs.

Given the right prompts, these little robot-like biological organisms (affectionately named ‘Xenobots’) can be observed moving around and completing simple tasks.

Why is this important?

Pick up any standard developmental biology textbook. 

It will likely tell you that your DNA and Genome (coded instructions in your cells) are primarily responsible for deciding how you develop. 

You’ll also be told that your cells are limited in their ability to form different structures.

Levin’s work and findings are proving that cells exhibit intelligent, adaptable, problem-solving behaviour – ie, intelligence exists outside the brain of closed biological systems, like us.

The idea that life creates intelligent, ‘problem-solving machines’ rather than defining a specific evolutionary process where intelligence arises from a human-like brain is a biggie.

Artificial Intelligence

Due to our limited understanding of intelligence, all of the hype surrounding AI is about understanding, communicating with and creating a human-like Artificial Intelligence.

Human-like intelligence is important and will have many profound implications.

But it’s only a small part of the story.

As we broaden our understanding of intelligence, we open the door to creating and communicating with diverse forms of intelligence, unlike our own.

There’s a strong case to be made that all of the hype around human-like Artificial Intelligence with current Language Model architectures, won’t be that important in a few years.

The implications of this will be mind-boggling.

It will almost certainly reveal some confronting truths about intelligence, consciousness and the boundaries of the self.

And we’ll be forced to rethink our relationship with non-human-like intelligent entities with goals and objectives different from our own.

I’d like to finish the essay with a verse from Levin’s Some free verse on the topic of Diverse Intelligence – a very clever spin on The Invitation.

“I don’t care whether you have a big cortex, or even a brain at all, that you have a body within the 3-dimensional world which I am so fixated on, or that your medium size and speed are easily noticed by me and my kind. I want to know if you can hold counterfactual thoughts, dreaming of long ago, of future times, and of worlds that may never be. Do you live in the here-and-now, recording the crisp details of life as they are, or must you confabulate wildly, telling creative, symmetrical, beautifully compact stories of the past and future? Do those stories define you, carrying you across the gap between moments? Are you comfortable with being a metaphor, like everything else?”

Michael Levin

In simpler words – I care little for the physical characteristics or form of a human-like intelligence, our perceived big brains, or even the fact we exist in the physical world. 

Instead, I am interested in the cognitive abilities and inner experiences of diverse intelligences, far beyond the realms of human-ness.