Hyperpat\’s HyperDay

SF, science, and daily living

The IQ Bar

Posted by hyperpat on May 7, 2007

There is a certain amount of respect that we give self-aware intelligence. People are presumed to belong to this category, and as such they are normally supposed to have certain rights: freedom, the right to choose their own course of action, the right to own property, etc, both in the courts and in daily business. This is in opposition to those considered to not meet the intelligence bar, the various animals that populate this planet, both domesticated and wild. Baboons and cows are normally not allowed, on their own initiative, to frequent the local restaurant or china shop; they have no say so in how they are quartered, nor even who their sexual partners will be (at least not for those specimens in captivity).  Then there are those humans, who for one reason or another, don’t have the normal cognitive abilities, and are saddled with caretakers, trustees, or institutions, and have their freedom to do as they please severely restricted. The question is, just where do we draw the line between those who have enough computation power and those who don’t?

Intelligence tests are something of a joke in this context. For one thing, just about all of them are highly anthropomorphic, and trying to apply them to animals is probably doing the animals a great disservice. Note that the whole concept of ‘intelligence’ is slippery: ability to learn, ability to react to changes in the environment, ability to bind time, ability to predict the consequences of actions, ability to communicate seem to be just some of its components, but as the various attempts to devise tests such as the Turing model for determining if computers are ‘intelligent’ have shown, very complex rote actions can mimic what we think of as intelligence so well that we may not be able to tell the difference. For that matter, perhaps the normal human ‘intelligence’ really is no more than this – some very complex rules that a human follows when dealing with the outside world, and nothing more.

But the few tests that have been devised specifically for animals, such as those to determine the ability of some primates to learn and use language and tools, are limited, and still subject to a certain amount of human-oriented perspective on what is important. Dolphins in their normal environment have no need of tools, so why should we expect that all intelligent beings must be tool-users? But even with these test limitations, it’s clear that some of this world’s animals do have a fairly high intelligence level, and, as many animal-rights activists keep striving for, are deserving of some rights and privileges even if they are not given full status.

So just how can we decide who or what should have what level of privileges and rights? This is not an idle question, as somewhere in the future is the prospect of computer artificial intelligences, genetically modified animals, and possible alien intelligences. How will we treat such beings? Science fiction abounds with stories where we tragically get it wrong, and relegate a life form to the category of ‘beast’, sometimes with very bad consequences (for a good example, try Robert Heinlein’s The Star Beast, and the whole concept of intelligence and the value of self awareness is questioned in Peter Watts Blindsight). Before such a scenario really comes to pass, I think we need to get cracking on when, how, and why we draw such lines. A formal document that spells out in detail what constitutes a being deserving of respect and what privileges it is endowed with within our society needs to be hammered out. It’s probable that whatever we can come up with today will have errors, omissions, and oversights, and may be laughably too human or legally-centered (at least when looked at from some far future time), but anything would be an improvement on what we have now, a mish-mash of court precedents, a few test results, and various advocacy groups crying for this or that privilege.


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