Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Can the Earth be intelligent?

The claim that Earth is a self conscious being is a large one, one which needs to be supported by facts.

One way of testing the claim is to ask if Earth has any computer like qualities which might be capable of intelligent thought, and if it has is there a way of testing that intelligence. A Turing test for the planet is difficult to conceive.

Defining intelligence as knowledge applied for a purpose leads to the conclusion that Earth has indeed done just that. and so is an intelligent being.

For the sake of this argument I will refer to humanity as the mind of Earth. This though is intended only to demonstrate a point and I make no claim for our sole tenure of that position.

Earth compared to a Computer

One way of looking at the question of whether Earth can be described as intelligent is to ask how it compares to a computer. If Earth is comparable to a stored program computer then it should have the same minimum components as a computer: The ability to input data and programs, as well as output its result, short term storage and processing, long term storage.

It is easy enough to argue that humanity, taken as a whole, does indeed have all these characteristics. We can gather information and take in instructions; humans can individually store information and make decisions based on that information for perhaps a hundred years. Collectively we have devised methods for storing data and passing on instructions for periods into the thousands of years-though not without signal decay. We can take action based on our collective knowledge, and pass on our new understanding to the next generation. 

To claim that these are characteristics of the planet, and not just the species, as a minimum it is necessary to show that the characteristics are capable of emerging from a process common to many species.

It is generally accepted that the process of evolution works by passing advantageous traits on from one generation to another. So the storing and modifying of instruction is certainly an internal function of life on the planet. Habitat or territory is another thing passed through generations by many species. It is arguable that for humans the passing on of territory, as an advantageous trait for the genes, became the passing on of property for the same reason. Likewise the passing on of hunting skills became the passing on of codified knowledge from generation to generation.

So the computer like characteristics present in humanity are not limited to our species but are a facet of all life on Earth

The Turing Test

Compared to evolution there is much less agreement on what is intelligence. So when Alan Turing first asked the question of whether electronic ‘brain’ machines were intelligent or not he had to cut through most of the debate on the nature of intelligence to propose a simple practical test.

In his original description of the test Turing proposed that the computer take part in an imitation game:

“It is played with three people, a man (A), a woman (B), and an interrogator (C) who may be of either sex. The interrogator stays in a room apart from the other two. The object of the game is to determine which of the other two is the man and which is the woman.  We now ask the question, 'What will happen when a machine takes the part of A in this game?' Will the interrogator decide wrongly as often when the game is played like this as he does when the game is played between a man and a woman?”

Turing’s idea was that a machine should be called intelligent if it can not be distinguished from a person in a practical test. In other words it does as well, or as badly, as a human who is credited with intelligence.

One good thing about this approach is that it avoids precise definitions and measures of intelligence. Certainly at the time Turing was writing, and still to too large an extent, many definitions of, and tests for, intelligence can be criticised on the basis that often seem set up to prove that the person or group who originated the test are more intelligent than others.

It is difficult to conceive of an equivalent to the Turing test that could be taken by an entire planet, especially as the testers are part of that planet themselves.  So another way must be found.


Turing’s introduction to the imitation game has been widely criticised, even his biographer Andrew Hodges seems to suggest the introduction is frivolous. To me however the imitation game illustrates something very important.

For any animal meeting another member of their own species surely an important first question is to ask; ‘Potential mate or potential rival?’ 

Framed in this way the question is irrelevant to a computer. But framing the question in this way shows, I believe, that in this aspect at least intelligence is not neutral. Ultimately the intelligence demonstrated in the imitation game is one where knowledge is applied in the service of biology–even possibly of evolution.

This then is what leads me to a definition of intelligence against which Earth can be tested. This is that intelligence is knowledge applied for a purpose.

This has the immediate advantage to my mind of answering the question of where intelligence lies in a Turing machine. It can only lie in the running of a machine for a purpose and not in the tables. The tables represent knowledge, but not its application.

Has Earth applied knowledge for a purpose? Clearly the answer is yes, for knowledge, and energy, have been gathered and built on to send life beyond the limits of the planet.

By this test Earth is an intelligent being.

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