Inner and Outer perspectives on intelligence

I was talking about how measures of intelligence could focus on the outside results or on the process internals that give rise to said results. Our first intuition would be that if intelligence is a property of behaviour, then an empirical approach would be to focus on the outside results, and that the internals can be treated as a black box that is irrelevant, a view reminiscent of behaviorism. If intelligence is defined in terms of outside results, then it does not matter how these outside results, ie behavior, came about.

This kind of reasoning leads us to the Turing test, a black box measure of intelligence. Now, Im not going to go the route of the Chinese Room and make that kind of objection. However, even if I find Chinese Room misguided, there is something to opening the black box, both practically and philosophically. Consider two implementations of the black box for an intelligent agent.

Vast Rule Set

Here, the agent whose behavior we have measured to be intelligent has a brain that is nothing but a huge list of rules that map perceptions to actions. There is no processing. The agent takes its percept, finds the corresponding rule, and acts according to the action pointed to by the rule. Because there is no processing of any kind, the rule set would be huge, as the number of possible raw unprocessed perceptions is huge. In fact, no rule would ever be used more than once as perceptions, when considered as raw unprocessed data, never repeat.

Would knowing these internals of the agent make us change our mind about its intelligence? I would say no, they should not. However, even if there are no philosophical consequences as to the definition of intelligence from this example, there are practical ones. That is, if you try to build an AI this way, you will fail. In judging whether certain AI attempts are on the right track or not, opening the black box and looking inside tells us things. And if we know that Watson is not grounding natural language knowledge in sensory experience, we suspect it is not an advance towards general intelligence, but domain specific technology that solves a restricted goal.

Random Number Generator

What if we look inside the agent and find nothing but a random number generator? Further, lets say that, in fact, there is nothing else but a random number generator. Is this impossible? Not really, just hugely, astronomically, cosmically,… improbable that the agent did behave intelligently. But it did.

It is kind of a far-fetched hypothetical situation because randomness is exactly the antithesis of intelligence, the baseline if you like. But, given that we accept the terms of the hypothesis it suggests a contradiction. The behavior was intelligent, but it came out of sheer idiocy. What then?

We can resolve the contradiction noting that although we say that the behavior was intelligent, what this really means is that said behavior, in general, allows us to infer a capacity on the part of the agent. In this particular case, the description of the hypothetical situation invalidates said inference, because we know that the agent will not be intelligent in the future (or at least, it is astronomically improbable).


In conclusion, intelligence is a capacity of an agent. The internals as to how this capacity is realized are not fundamental to the definition of intelligence. Intelligent behavior is simply behavior that allows us to infer this capacity from an agent.

Besides the matter of defining intelligence, opening the black box allows us to make predictions as to whether a given strategy for AI is on the right path, given experience of what has not worked in the past. So although the internals are not fundamentally important philosophically, they tell is if an approach is practical.

The deal with Watson

Ferruci gives a brief semi-technical talk on how Watson works

The question on everyone’s mind is what does Watson represent in terms of AI advancement? It’s a very advanced piece of natural language processing and machine learning, impressive parallel computing and engineering, and clever domain specific (ie jeopardy) trickery. But Watson does not represent significant improvement towards general AI, although it’s probably general enough to apply to other question answering, QA, domains.

After all, that’s what the name of the technology suggests, DeepQA. Deeper natural language processing and semantic understanding, but not the level of depth of real understanding. And this takes us to the question of what exactly do we mean by real understanding. The simple answer seems, the understanding that we associate with humans in tasks of reading comprehension. Of course, using this definition alone leads to the no-win trap that many AI researchers complain about: if the goal necessarily includes the human element, the by definition it is unattainable by a machine.

There are two approaches to reach a useful (as in, not predetermined to produce failure) metric of success. Those that concentrate on results, and those that concentrate on the internals that give rise to results. More on this later.