The fundamental nature of intelligence

I came across an interesting request the other day from a DARPA consultant who was seeking input from the slashdot/computer geek community on projects that were pushing the boundaries of “neuromorphic computing” (better known as AI).

Among the goals of the project are:

measuring and understanding biological brains, creating AI systems, and investigating the fundamental nature of intelligence.

There’s something funny, something more than a little hubristic about the way this is put, as if it were just another US military project that was, oh-by-the-way, seeking to determine the fundamental nature of intelligence.

But beyond being a bit of a grandiose task, I think it’s framed the wrong way: intelligence is not something like elephants, electricity, or even quarks — it isn’t “out there, waiting to be described” in the same way that everyday physical objects are. Saying you’re setting out to understand “the fundamental nature of intelligence” is a bit like saying you want to determine once and for all the “fundamental nature of art”. Well, it turns out that your project is pretty much doomed to fail since how society defines, treats, and values intelligence (or art) is highly specific to cultural and temporal contexts.

Daniel Goleman‘s pioneering work on emotional intelligence, for example, is not so much an instance of “coming to a better grasp of the fundamental nature of intelligence” as it is a redefinition of intelligence, a re-valuation of certain traits that were previously less strongly associated with intelligence. It was a “persuasive redefinition”, to use a Quinean idiom, rather than a pure explication (if such a thing is indeed possible). But the word that comes so readily to mind when describing Goleman’s work (“pioneering”) reveals how deeply our tendency runs to view such work as grasping towards unexplored territory, shedding light into darkness; that is, revealing something “out there”, hitherto undiscovered.

But if there is no fundamental, universal nature of intelligence, then setting out to uncover the truth of intelligence is likely to just re-enforce and re-privilege certain notions of what intelligence is. I’m not saying that research into intelligence (even that conducted by comp-sci Ph.Ds with DARPA funding) will not be fruitful; nor am I even saying that it will be overly one-sided (there is fair bit of research going into making robots more emotional “intelligent”). All I mean to suggest is that those conducting such research be aware that they are entering a particularly value-laden field of research, one that deals with phenomena more socially constructed (using Ian Hacking‘s scale, from The Social Construction of What?) than in many of the other sciences.

Canadian carbon tax plans

The federal Green Party (of which I am a member) has just announced their plan for a national carbon tax, along with a gas tax, while Dion has provided more details on the Liberals’ plan.

Meanwhile, the Conservatives are still firmly entrenched in the “sit on our asses and do nothing” camp, calling the Liberal’s plan a “revenue grab”. Thank God we have the Conservatives to

Yay Canada

Jim Prentice fumbles his way through a 10-minute CBC interview

Listen to an interview with Canadian Industry Minister Jim Prentice on CBC Radio’s Search Engine, as he attempts (and I stress “attempts”) to answer some simple questions about Canada’s proposed amendments to the Copyright Act.

It’s a rather embarrassing performance, and he cuts it off abruptly 10 minutes through. While he undoubtedly is not very forthright and does a lot of ducking and weaving, some in the blogosphere are even accusing him of outright lying.

I’m not sure which part they’re referring too, though it could be when he suggests that no one would ever get hit with $20,000.00 damages for breaking copy protection on digital media (this may be a lie), or when he seems to purposefully misinterpret a question so on cell-phone unlocking so that the legislation doesn’t seem as draconian.

There are some comments worth reading at Michael Geist’s blog.

Canadian students’ environmental knowledge and attitudes

Those interested in the environment may have missed some relevant findings from the 2006 OECD‘s PISA Science assessment results. The education findings are well-known (Canadian youth score highly both on raw achievement and on equity measures), but less well-known is the fact that the Science assessment also gauged youths’ awareness of and attitudes towards environmental issues.

Canadian students:

  • ranked 7th on awareness of environmental issues
  • were slightly below the OECD average when it came to concern for these issues,
  • were below average on their optimism that these environmental problems will be improved in the next 20 years
  • were at the OECD average on measures surrounding responsibility for sustainable development

It’s worth noting that students from the “most culpable countries” (in which we could include, according roughly to consumption and pollution per capita: Canada, the USA, the UK, Australia, New Zealand) were all below the OECD average for concern about environmental issues.

What would be interesting would be a measure that related, say, per capita carbon output to awareness/concern for environmental issues. If these PISA results are representative of a broader trend, I imagine Canada would fall seriously short on such an indicator.

What are the relationships between learning and engagement at school?

I think all we can really say for now is that “we think there’s something there, but we’re not sure what”.

A cursory glance at the recent PISA figures on student achievement in science seem to show no macro-level relationship between achievement on the one hand, and sense of belonging and participation on the other. For instance, the highest-scoring countries in the domains of literacy, science and math (which include Finland, Canada, Hong-Kong, etc.) are all over the map in terms of sense of belonging and participation.

Both Canada and Finland rank fairly low with regard to sense of belonging and participation, while Hong-Kong has a very high level of participation, but a very low level of belonging (same for Japan, which also tends to score highly on the OECD tests). Luxembourg, which ranks quite low on the science achievement scale, manifests a fairly high level of student participation, combined with low sense of belonging.

Three obvious scenarios (and there are probably more, less obvious ones) present themselves as possible explanations:

  1. There is no relationship between participation/sense of belonging and achievement
  2. There is a direct relationship of some sort between the measures of engagement and achievement, but it only turns up at the meso or micro levels (individual student, or perhaps the classroom)
  3. There is in fact a macro level relationship, but my first-year university Stats 150 course did not provide me with the analytical skills to discern it

Whatever the case, the relationships merit further study. Good luck running a randomized controlled trial on that one.