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Monday, August 11, 2014

The Nature of Intelligence

This post isn't specifically about gaming, but it comes from a discussion I had this week where my sweetheart and I agreed to disagree. And perhaps it tangentially involves gaming, as games are a manifestation of man's problem solving nature - an exercise of our intelligence if you would. But more specifically, our disagreement was in how to gauge that intelligence?

This discussion was brought on by an observation we both made that within our Facebook groups, there had been a lot of people taking one specific "IQ" test. You now how that sort of Facebook thing works. Take the test and at completion it offers to post your score to Facebook, so you do. Others see it and want to take it too, if for no other reason than to prove they are smarter than you. And so on.

What I noticed was that everyone seemed to score about the same: between 130 and 135. That would qualify everyone as Mensa members. Damn, I know a lot of really smart people! Or do I?

The issue with tests like this is that they are misleading. First of all, the tests are always some form of multiple choice. Which one of these is not like the others? Complete the sequence. That sort of thing. There is a reason why you have to not only write but also defend verbally a doctoral thesis. To truly prove mastery of a subject you must be able to articulate it in ways that rote learning will not accommodate. So strike one, these IQ tests are multiple choice - the work for of test possible IMO.

The second issue I take with these tests is this. What are they really testing? Here is an example of what I mean. Let's go with a complete-the-sequence question. Here is the sequence: 1-3-5-7. What is the next number? There are actually two correct answers, but they test different levels of cognitive function. One correct answer is 9. That would be the fifth odd number, right? But if this was an IQ test, meant to determine how innately intelligent someone is, wouldn't a better answer be 11? That is, after all, the next prime number in the sequence. 8-)

Then there are the ones that test pattern recognition abilities rather than deductive logic. Practically all humans have excellent pattern recognition skills. It is one of the things that sets primates apart from the other animals. Volumes of scientific literature have been written about our ocular expertise. So if this so-called IQ test is testing pattern recognition rather than logical deduction, everyone would score rather high, wouldn't they? And who would be the wiser? One wire diagram looks much the same as another. And if the test allowed both the pattern answer and the logical deduction answer to be correct, then everyone is assuredly a genius!

Sorry, but no. These IQ tests, that have been around since the World Wide Web went public, are not a real test of intelligence. It is a test of pattern recognition abilities, and that's instinctual. Instinct is not what I think of as intelligence. And that's what got me in trouble.

It turns out I evidently have a really high expectations when it comes deciding if someone else is truly intelligence. It might even be prejudicial. In fact, by my standard even I do not rate as very intelligent. To me, there is a big difference between smart and intelligent. I like to think of myself as smart, and I know a lot of things. There are also a lot of things I don't know, and I know that. (Does that make me wise?) But that only shows I am a well-educated human being. It does not make me intelligent IMO.

Have you have heard the phrase, "educated beyond one's common sense?" For my, that phrase summarizes nicely the negative side of the smart versus intelligence question. To me, intelligence requires a spark of innovation. We have a word for it even. That word is epiphany. An epiphany can occur in an instance, but it often takes months or years of dedicated thinking. As an example of what I mean, let's talk about the Levallois spear head. That is the mammoth killing stone point made by Homo Neanderthalis. It was a marvel of engineering, capable of inflicting fatal injuries on the largest megafauna of the ice ages.

Now, you're probably thinking I'm going to make some point about Neanderthals being intelligent. There you are wrong. Anyone can be taught to knap flint. What's important here is Homo Sapiens developed an entirely different way of knapping than Neanderthals used. Neanderthals created a very specific core from which they then fashioned their Levallois spear head. Any old core does not work. The core they had to start with had to be created in a very specific way, and Homo Sapiens have either forgotten how to do it - or had never learned it in the first place.

That is until Metin Eren of the University of Kent, Canterbury, put his mind to it. Metin Eren was already an expert knapper. But here, let me let him tell you what it took to figure out how to make a Levallois spear head.

NARRATOR: With only limited stone tools and no art or personal ornaments, Neanderthals seemed less advanced than modern humans. But was that really the whole story?

Now, new discoveries in genetics and archaeology are challenging this traditional view of the Neanderthals.

Metin Eren has spent six years studying Neanderthal technology. These "Levallois flakes," named after the place in France where they first found, were the Neanderthals' tool of choice. At first glance, they look rudimentary, the product more of luck than judgment. But when Eren tried to reproduce one, he got a surprise.

METIN EREN: I can tell you, just from my personal experience, I find the Levallois technology much more difficult to make than any of the modern Homo sapiens technologies. You know, it took me about 18 months to master Levallois technology, and this was after I'd been flint-napping for a number of years. The fact that there seems to be a goal involved…they're not simply striking flakes to get a sharp cutting edge.

NARRATOR: Eren began to realize this was no hit and miss process. He wanted to discover just how they did it. So he turned to morphometrics, a technique which analyzes the exact shapes and angles of objects.

It revealed Neanderthals must have used a precise set of strikes to turn a raw flint block into a carefully-shaped object, known as the core. The final crucial step involved striking the core with a single precision blow. Only if aimed just right, would this create the perfect flake, and a remarkably versatile tool.

METIN EREN: I shape this in such a way so that the core has a gentle convexity, so that the large flake that comes off has a sharp edge all around this perimeter. That enhances its utility in a number of ways.

Because it's uniformly thick, you can re-sharpen it a number of times more than you can other types of stone flakes.

We also found the Levallois flake is statistically more symmetrical, so that when you use it, it basically reduces torque. It has ergonomic properties. I can actually get a lot more force with each cut and each slice. I just put a little more pressure, and the Levallois flake goes right through it and that one big piece of gammon. That took about a minute and a half.

This is an amazing tool. They were engineering their rocks to get particular products that have specific properties. That they were able to discover a technique that is incredibly difficult to do is just a testament to how intelligent they must have been to actually invent it in the first place.

NARRATOR: Metin Eren's work reveals the complexity of Neanderthal tool-making, but there's even more surprising evidence of sophisticated Neanderthal technologies.

(This is a partial transcript from the Nova show Decoding Neanderthals that aired on PBS January 9, 2013. You can read the entire transcript (and all credits) here.)

So how is this an example of intelligence as I see it? Because it took everything Metin Eren ever learned about knapping, and 18 months of thought, to figure out there was a different way to make a spearhead. It's the quintessential application of knowledge, smarts as it were, to solve the unknown. A non-expert wouldn't have even known where to start, but it takes raw intelligence to figure something out that's not been done for 35,000 years - and probably never by our species. That's intelligence as I see it. It's the problem solving that's the key, not the knowing so much.

It turns out I am probably in the minority on this one. The counterexample to this view I was immediately given was the artist. Most consider artists to by highly intelligent because they create something which has never existed previously. It comes completely our of their intellect. But let's put our cynical hats on for a moment. How many artists actually create art that has no similarity to any other art ever done? It's one thing to create a "unique" painting in the style of Van Gogh. It's quite another thing to BE Van Gogh. Van Gogh was a genius - or a madman - I can't decide which. But there is no denying his art is not only unique, but is unlike anything done previously. It is its own defining style. When an artist achieves that level of work, then I'll concede her obvious intelligence. Until that proof is given, there is just no knowing how intelligent she may, or may not, be.

And I haven't even gotten to the difference between clever and intelligent. And I suppose I shouldn't. This post is already long enough. Let me just say that clever doesn't necessarily denote intelligence in my book. Then again, it just might, It's all in the application of said cleverness, and the subjective appraisal of its effectiveness. And there's the rub. If the appraiser is not intelligent enough to understand how clever the cleverness really is, how can they possibly hope to really understand it? Egad, I just made myself dizzy thinking about that one.

So what do you think? What is the nature of intelligence, and what would it take to make you acknowledge someone you know as possibly the next Albert Einstein?


  1. I think that intelligence doesn't have a single nature. Any realistic measure of smarts would have to include everything from the imagination of an Einstein, through mechanical aptitude and political acumen, to the incredible mental focus of the athlete or spec ops warrior. These are the crucial facets, I think, which are useful at different times and in different ways.

    I think we'll eventually determine that the technological and cultural revolution that overtook our species about forty thousand years ago wasn't due to some mutation's suddenly making us more intelligent. Rather, I believe that we just reached a critical population density beyond which cultures were more sustainable and job specialization was made not just possible, but necessary. We became able to stand on the shoulders of giants, and teach subsequent generations not just everything known, but how to learn.

  2. 1-3-5-7 ... the next number is 9 and not 13. If this were a list of primes, it should have included 2.

  3. Not even for a second. It is still a list of prime numbers and the next one is 13. You must prove that false rather than try to change the point of the debate by adding additional facts not part of the original problem. Since you cannot disprove they are a sequence of prime numbers, the best you can do is quantify it by saying odd prime numbers. But that in no way disqualifies the answer. When it is your test, feel free to phrase the question however you wish. But in my test, your answer is not optimal. Better luck next time. ;-)

  4. For the artist, the abstract-thinking right hemisphere.

    For the toolmaker, the analytical left hemisphere.

    Both are intelligent.

    The progress of Man has always rested on the two hemispheres working in harmony. We call that genius.

  5. In all my years as a teacher, I've never met an intelligent student. I've never met a stupid one either. All I've really found are those that have motivation/interest in learning, and those that don't.

    I had a girl that couldn't speak a word of English, and had failed her beginner courses three times. I sat her next teacher down, and told him to adjust the course material to fit what she'd like, and we went through the class text book, making some relatively minor changes. Three months later, she sang that Twilight song in front of three hundred people, and spoke fluent English to the MC afterwards.

    Perhaps there are some people who have more intelligence, but it really isn't as important as being motivated to learn.

    My pet peeve is teachers complaining that students are too stupid to get the course material. The next thing they usually say is something along the lines of a learning disability. We're a little too quick to dismiss people as unteachable, or otherwise un-intelligent.

  6. "That is, after all, the next prime number in the sequence."
    Since you're also not talking about odd primes, just primes, your answer is also not optimal. Leaving out the beginning 1 could make it "optimal" but not this way.
    I would say... They can't be a sequence of primes, since 2 is missing, so based on (a bit simplified) Occam's law (the more probable, the better): odd numbers are a lot more probable to be used than odd primes as a solution, so the odd numbers should be used.

    Anyway, the "original" IQ test were designed the way, that the person taking the test needs no or near zero previous knowledge. As you like to call it, not the pattern recognition as "what" this or that is is the important, but the "why" is this pattern similar to that one and not that other. The deductive logic as you called it.

  7. "It turns out I evidently have a really high expectations when it comes deciding if someone else is truly intelligence."

    You don't say. ;-)

    Seriously, though, there are many different kinds of intelligence, and a lot of them involve parts of the body other than the brain. Scientists who'd been looking at ways to fold virtual 3D models of proteins for years discovered several new folding patterns within hours of getting 3D printed models that they could manipulate. The hand/brain connection is incredibly strong in general, but in some people it's remarkably so. Or you can Nikolai Tesla, who saw complete solutions in his head. Or Joe Morello, who once gave an ad hoc lecture on limb independence while improvising on the drum set in four different time signatures at once--one for each limb.

    As for epiphany, my wife and I had a talk about that a while ago, and I came to share her preference for the old phrase that someone "has" a genius (or a muse), rather than that they "are" one. It allows for the otherwise unremarkable person who does one incredible thing.

  8. I couldn't agree more! Most of my adult life has been in the field of computer support. In my various capacities, I've needed to train my company's employees to use the automated tools given them. Anyone can learn to use a computer effectively. However, what typically distinguishes the truly successful from the barely competent is a willingness to learn, and to extend the reach of their knowledge. For me personally, and my possibly too strict view of intelligence, that is often the first signal I get from an individual that they have what I consider intelligence. I can think of nothing more intelligent than a willingness to learn. Thanks for bringing it up!

  9. Hm. I don't know what tests you took, but I once had the chance to join an accredited IQ test (25 years ago or so), and while pattern recognition played a role, it wasn't the only factor. Speed, and mental agility also played a role.

    But in a way, intelligence tests also provide a meta way of distinguishing smart from stupid people. Smart people know that there is still a lot of work to be done, and that current intelligence tests test only a fraction of the whole spectrum of human intelligence (but at least they test it in a statistically significant way). Stupid people think that intelligence tests claim to measure the whole of human intelligence, or that intelligence denotes the 'value' of a citizen - and it doesn't even matter if those people are for or against those notions.


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