Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Are animals intelligent ... enough?

A recent, fascinating recent study is Decoding Animal Languages, by Con Slobodchikoff.  At one level, it is an inspiring demonstration of how new technologies can liberate us from preconceptions and open new avenues of empathy, helping humans to understand the other species who co-inhabit this planet with us.

As Temple Grandin has pointed out, in her campaigns to reform the meat industry, we do not have to entirely abandon the omnivorous cravings of our caveman ancestry. But we are obliged to offer our fellow creatures the best deal that's compatible with our legitimate needs. Doing that entails finding paths of greater care and understanding. Prof. Grandin explores the language of animals through her gifts as the world's most impressive and high-functioning fully autistic person. Dr. Slobodchikoff is doing it with acoustical science.

I have some history in this area, having visited many researchers to learn about animal communications, in preparation for my "uplift" series of novels. These portray a future in which humanity meddles with the intellectual capacities of higher animals.  

Prior authors explored this territory -- HG Wells, Pierre Boule, Cordwainer 
UpliftMontageSmith - so I avoided their standard scenario that, in arrogating the promethean powers of God, humans would reflexively opt to be cruel or to enslave the new minds.  Instead, my readers explore what problems neo-dolphins or neo-chimps might have, even were the endeavor done with skill, kindness and best intentions.

The end result - 200 years down the road, might be a pan-Terran civilization filled with broader styles and more diversity of wisdom - a fine dream. But are we willing to pay the price? Which would be pain.  Lots of it, unavoidable, for those intermediate generations of cetaceans and simians, and for ourselves, as some of the steps and missteps along the way prove awkward, mistaken, or even or tragic.

I have no doubt that powerful forces from both left and right would unite (as I portray in my new novel, Existence) against any such effort, one side decrying any hubristic attempt to revise God's plan and the other proclaiming that natural species are already smart enough, with great linguistic abilities and their own nobility of spirit, equal in value to our own.  I do not wholly disagree with the second of these objections!  But it is, in the end, wrongheaded.

Consider the recent work of Dr. Slobodchikoff and others, demonstrating the basic linguistic ability of prairie dogs, adding them to a long list of species who can signal complex arrays of factual-practical information.  And the smaller but significant number of even-smarter species who seem capable of genuine sentence structure, questions, answers and basic logical-semantic interpretation. Those who can do all this, with vocabularies in hundreds of words, include dolphins, apes, parrots, corvids (crows), pinnipeds (sea lions) and dozens more (with dolphins and chimps slightly ahead).  Is this evidence, as Dr. Slobodchikoff implies and as many on the left insist, that all these threshold races have what's sufficient, noble, and in no need of human "help"?

Or does it suggest the very opposite? All seem to crowd against an obdurate and perhaps natural limit, bumping against the same glass ceiling. Evolution brought each, separately, to the point where individuals can interact tribally, solve basic riddles, organize a few, primitive-coordinated activities, and perhaps (in a few cases) contemplate some kinds of irony, esthetics or even whimsey. But Darwin is stingy. He allows urgent species (sometimes) to achieve their minimal needs. But it is another matter to get what you want.  

And speaking purely anecdotally, I can tell you that the dolphins who interact with sincere human researchers appear to want - desperately - to be smarter than they are. It is a subjective impression I have heard from the scientists themselves, a number of times.

9780465031313There is growing evidence that something very special happened to a few thousand African hominids, half a million or so years ago… and in accelerating stages ever since, up to today. That special thing - a runaway selection process that made a race capable of contemplating what YOU are contemplating, right now - was certainly unique on Earth and may be unprecedented across vast stretches of the Galaxy. It enabled us to rise so high that our abilities and numbers may threaten the whole planet.  Or else - if we choose - empower us to save the Earth, and heal it and tend and manage it.

Either way, that's power, man.

Those who attempt to downplay this leap, by saying animals have "language" too, miss the point.  It s not in simple, qualitative, on-off switches like "tool use" or use of basic semantics that we are so profoundly different.  It is the additive, multiplicative, exponentiated effects that have come from combining a myriad skills in a stunning momentum of mind.

While some of our savants ponder how to analyze, emulate and even amplify these powers in silica, it may be time, as well, to contemplate the cousin consciousnesses that we already have, all around us.  Natural beings who may not have to bump against the hard ceiling of their pre-sapient limits forever, but whose destinies may be broad and vast indeed… providing we grow wise and good and skilled enough to show the way.


Alan Cooper said...

Are you aware of any examples of a non-human communicating (without demonstrating) the statement of a conditional - either as proposition or command?

Jumper said...

I think we need more analysis of our own intelligence to proceed, perhaps before we even attempt uplift. My own theory is that most of it is piggybacked onto our social tribe-structure; the structure of simian pecking orders. No matter where you go, societies and languages have a word for the "big man." The boss. The higher-up. The silverback.

And so we rate concepts.

Kevin C. said...

Looks like Con Slobodchikoff has a new book coming out Chasing Doctor Dolittle: Learning the Language of Animals at a third the price of his earlier book on prairie dogs. I think I may pre-order this!

Alex Tolley said...

I've always liked the way you handled what you call uplift. It has been handled sympathetically before, but I have never read anything as completely well thought out as your approach.

It is perhaps time to move beyond the "should we" question and think seriously about "how do we" do this is a way that is well crafted and will not lead to too much pain and disruption for the chosen species.

The other issue is how much of human capability is culture, rather than raw brain power (whatever that is). Did the human culture explosion happen because of some tipping point that was reached, or some circumstance? And once it was set in motion, did the effects exponentiate, even though we have brains that are certainly no bigger than our ancestors, and may even be a little smaller?

IOW, would uplift benefit from a culture infusion as well as a physiological change?

Tony Fisk said...

Are you aware of any examples of a non-human communicating (without demonstrating) the statement of a conditional - either as proposition or command?

I was once having dinner, and my host's (large!) rottweiler came and sat next to me looking wistfully at my plate. Next thing, she had placed her paw, heavily, on my knee. And looked at me, then my plate, then my leg, then at me again
...that *wistful* look.

An amusing anecdote that's not meant to be taken seriously. But, is that an example of what you meant, Alan?

It is quite astonishing what 'bird brain' avians are capable of. Being somewhat larger, I wonder what their therapod cousins were capable of? (I'm still waiting to hear of the discovery of chipped flints and crude stone tools embedded just under the KT boundary.)

Other questions: I know chimps and other animals have been taught sign language, and that mothers even teach their children. Has there been any studies into how well they teach them? Do they 'coin' new gestures?

I found one of the most powerful scenes in 'Gattaca' was a simple throw-away line, made after a musical soiree: 'That piece can only be played with twelve fingers.' In a film about underclasses, that line showed how every living person, however, eugenically enhanced, could become the underclass. Not quite what we're talking about here, but it demonstrates the sort of gut-reaction to expect when such activities are given form.

So, how might such a project begin? Tentatively, with selective breeding programs, perhaps?

Carl M. said...

The Wrong Side Absolutely Must Not Win

The past several weeks have made one thing crystal-clear: Our country faces unmitigated disaster if the Other Side wins.

Ian Gould said...

Considering the pain and ethicuncertainties involved in uplift, maybe we shoudl try it on ourselves first?

matthew said...

Article in Nature- fathers age has a large effect in incidence of autism and schizophrenia.
Link to abstract:
Main article is behind paywall but we'll see lots of analysis in the next couple of days.
Seeing that both of these diseases are also positively linked with higher intelligence, what does this say about the uplift of man? Did the rise of human intelligence coincide with an increase in breeding age for males? Fun speculation.

Ian Gould said...

@Tony Fisk: the avain brain has a structure called the Wulst, made up of extremely densely packed and highly interconnecetd neurons.

It's probably a flight adaptation since it reduces the overall size of the brain.

As such, it seems unlikely that non-flying avian ancestors had it.

However you have to wonder about the non-flying avians? Just how smart are penguins? Have they retained the wulst? Lost it? Increased it in size?

David Brin said...

Sorry... but I must re-light the political lamp.

Yes, this guy is a single anecdote, but after several other examples of the craziness of today's right, it is one more anecdote in a pile that's sky high.

Texas judge warns of possible ‘civil war’ if President Obama is re-elected...

"He's going to try to hand over the sovereignty of the United States to the U.N., and what is going to happen when that happens?," Head asked. "I'm thinking the worst. Civil unrest, civil disobedience, civil war maybe. And we're not just talking a few riots here and demonstrations, we're talking Lexington, Concord, take up arms and get rid of the guy."

I've said it any number of times. Stark... jibbering... loony. And yes, there are loonies on the left. But find for me where they are judges, congressmen, Senate candidates for a major party?

I do agree with Judge Head though. It is Civil War. The sides are the same. And Blue America must win.

Stefan Jones said...

The topper for the story of Judge Head?

He wants a special tax to pay to pay for weapons to protect the town against the U.N. occupiers.

Up in New Hampshire, a candidate for sheriff says he has no problem using lethal force to prevent abortions from being carried out.

David Brin said...

Oops here's the link. It's Ft Sumter time.

matthew said...

Hmmm, maybe not civil war yet. He wants the money to fight off UN troops that he says Obama is going to send in after Obama is reelected. Sounds more nutter than treasonous. But there are two public hearings on the subject so maybe we are in for more fun. Btw, the fox affiliate that I got the report from was more worried about the cost of the tax increase to support the increased number of deputies than in the crazy basic premise. Now, that's funny.

Rob said...

If Obama's going autocrat, he's certainly not gonna give the military to the *UN* to command. No power hungry autocrat would!

Tony Fisk said...

Haven't you heard? The UN Secretary General owns the Orbital Mind Control Lasers!

(Do you think it's time for another Illuminati expansion pack? The old paranoias are just too tame for this modern age.)


re: Wulst area. It would have developed from a pre-existing structure. We know that dinosaurs (eg Troodon) adapted to life in the polar regions had well developed visual cortexes.

Malcolm J. Brenner said...

Funny how my experiences with dolphins do not correspond to what you describe. I submit that it is the trainer-trainee model, which is being imposed on the dolphin, that makes them appear to be "wishing they were smarter," not any inherent lack of critical faculties. I found out that when you let a dolphin just be a dolphin, maybe let it train YOU for a change, they're plenty smart and very communicative in ways you can only imagine, David.

Robert said...

Tsk. The UN Secretary General does NOT owns the Orbital Mind Control Lasers. Those are my property. And they're not mind control lasers. They're meant for hunting feline-human hybrids who infest anime conventions and the like... fortunately, like their smaller furry brethren, they have this odd fascination with laser pointers so they congregate under the massive laser pointer and provide an easy target for the particle beam cannon.

I wish people would get their facts strange... ;)

Rob H.

Larry C. Lyons said...

@Tony Fisk-
Other questions: I know chimps and other animals have been taught sign language, and that mothers even teach their children. Has there been any studies into how well they teach them? Do they 'coin' new gestures?

Yes to both the Gardeners and Fouts, Washoe's keepers/parents whatever, observed Washoe teaching her son Loulis ASL, and was observed several times making up new signs.

Robert said...

Going off on a small tangent (as is my wont), I thought I'd share a little discussion on the Megatokyo discussion forum (Megatokyo being a webcomic with elements of science fiction and meta-storytelling aspects concerning anime/manga).

The below quoted text (from the user DrunkenSailor) was in response to my speculation on the protagonist (Piro), who has had an account for the fictional MMORPG Endgames for several years... but not touched it in two. Yet it seems the account is still active. I'd commented on the possibility the game-character Pirogoeth had been "playing herself" (having gained some level of electronic sentience) but was curious as to if Piro was still paying for the account.

This was DrunkenSailor's reaction:

But this thing Tangent brought up just now, that's interesting. EndGames was a COMMERCIAL game. Has Piro been paying for it all this time? Pirogoeth might be able to operate in auto, but she doesn't have a credit card. She can't pay for her own account. Someone has had to. That does seem pretty strange, paying for three years for a service you never use. Of course Piro wouldn't have to pay for the game actively, just not be able to bring himself to cancel the automatic payments from his credit card account.

If Piro has been paying for this all along, what happened to Pirogoeth when he maxed out his credit card eight weeks ago? I suppose there's a small possibility that that is what Piro is really considering in the last panel. Pirogoeth could be in trouble now that Piro hasn't been able to pay the EndGames bill for two months.

A Pirogoeth in auto-mode (much like Ping [ed. - an android and Playstation 2 experimental accessory that has shown sentience and looks like a teenage girl] who isn't being played with), would possibly be adept at manipulating the system to keep herself going. Doing sufficient quests for in game currency that could be traded for game time or some such. A matter of survival for her now. Quite a difficult situation to be left in.

On an even darker note, sort of. Imagine if/when powerful human like AI is finally developed. You log into your PC and your AI friend who lives in the cloud says, "Hi !" Helps you, plays games with, against and for you, tidies your records and does your taxes. Chats with you can becomes your friend. You are her user, she is totally devoted to you (like Ping to Piro). And then, if you fail to pay the monthly fee... dies.

Apple and Google are SO going to jump all over a guaranteed cash stream like that.


So yeah. That's an interesting thought: once we actually start achieving online sentiences, when someone stops playing a game or using a service where that sentience assists the user, wouldn't it be in essence killing that sentience? And thus would not most people continue using the service after the fact so not to have the sentience die?

Just a little something to gnaw upon. :)

Rob H.

David Brin said...

Malcolm, please elucidate your experience with dolphins? Because the folks at Kewalo Basin spent a LOT of time with Akeakemai and the other dolphins, and the relationship was collaborative.

You suggest a slavelike situation from the start, with the dolphins treated like lab rats. You are mistaken.

ERic said...

Unrelated to the animals, and it's an old article, but I saw this and thought of transparency and smartphone filming of any/everything:

Seems like many other organizations would appreciate a tool that would allow them to shut off smartphone cameras. Since it's old, I expect someone has already mentioned it on one of your posts. But I figured I'd mention on the off chance that your smart mob hadn't noticed it before.

Tony Fisk said...

And then, if you fail to pay the monthly fee... dies.

Have you ever played 'Moshi Monsters'?

Ian Gould said...

Malcom and David: you guys are both generalizing from yoru personal experiences. Experiences with sdolphins that were not only different individuals and from different cultures but were quite possibly of different species.

As far as the ethics of Uplift go, how would it affect matters if we worked with the DNA of a functionally extinct species such as the Baiji?

SteveO said...

/begin snark/

Well it sounds to me like the current crop of Republicans getting all the news coverage are missing that *spark* Dr. Brin is describing...

/end snark?/

Jumper said...

I would NEVER let my AI live in the cloud! No way. I'd listen only with skepticism to any other. They'd get my AI when they pried its processor from my cold dead fingers!

Not that it would do any good. One bad thumb drive and all hell would break loose. What's a parent to do?

Maybe it's like raising kids.

Catfish N. Cod said...

Dr. Brin, "Judge" Head (whose role is more like county administrator) has finally gotten a leading pundit, Andrew Sullivan, to smell the coffee:

"Sometimes it feels to me as if this campaign - with its entrenched support for both sides so dominant and the space for actual persuasion so minimal - is less a campaign than a cold civil war. Almost exactly along the same regional and racial lines as the real one."

I hereby nominate that name for the current round. This is the Cold Civil War.

SteveO said...

Someone earlier said that Romney wasn't a dishonest man? The Guardian thinks so:

AndrewR said...

Ake died, like _all_ dolphins from Herman's lab .... - to be honest, i can't call him great at all - he FAILED to give freedom to those dolphins, even they demonstrated clearly, how intelligent AND self-aware they are. Also, Herman for some reason never allowed dolphins to talk back {two-way communication}. And always used operant conditioning.