Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Clues Are Piling Up

Perhaps I'm a bit early in being excited, but the early conclusions from some research reported by BBC Earth News conducted by Professor John David Smith, from State University of New York at Buffalo and Michael Beran, from Georgia State University kind of make me a bit excited.

Their study uses macaque monkeys trained to press buttons according to pictures presented to them. The research finds that the old world macaques seem to know when they don't know the answer. That isn't simply best guess effort to try to get another piece of food. They actually do like humans and hesitate and will actually choose the 'I don't know' button if there is one.

Dr Smith explained: "There is a big theoretical question at stake here: Did [this type of cognition] develop only once in one line of the primates - emerging only in the line of Old World primates leading to apes and humans?"
I know that I'm sometimes quick to get excited about some discoveries but if this is correct, it means that humans inherited many of their cognitive abilities, if not all of them, from an earlier ancestor. That is to say that it's not something special just to humans. This is important because we want to know about the origin of our intelligence in the effort to create AI.

There is another supremely interesting effect. If it can be shown that we inherited much of our mental faculties, then early humans would more likely have been as intelligent as we are now, but in the nascent human civilization they lacked knowledge. We ARE learning machines, singly and collectively. This might go a long way to help explain how there are marvels older than written history which are often explained as requiring extraterrestrial life or intelligence to design and implement. I did say 'might' since much more information should and needs to be collected with regard to such ancient marvels. I firmly believe the thought that early humans were incapable of solving problems that modern humans only know how to solve with machines is simply naive, or at worst egocentric.

UPDATE: There is a story over at NPR about a burial site in Jordan where they found a 16000-ish year old burial where a fox was buried in much the same way we found dogs were buried with their owners much later. It's not reasonable to make concrete conclusions about whether foxes were 'pets' 16000 years ago, long before domesticated dogs. However there IS something that can be said of this finding which is appropriate here. Despite lack of modern knowledge, human behaviors were much like they are today if we had to live in that environment and do so without knowledge from the industrial revolution. I opine that we would end up being much the same as what we think they were. This is important because we need to judge what evolution has done for intelligence. It can be agreed that early humans were intelligent beings. They lacked modern knowledge yet still created wonderments of architecture, domesticated animals, began raising crops to survive winter, and many other things that we modern humans would do if we found ourselves in such a situation. It's possible that this argues for ancient astronauts but in my opinion it argues more strongly for the fact that we are learning machines and possessed the basics we now have from the beginning or  near to it. The more we learn, the more we refine our behaviors and technology. That we still possess many of those behaviors speaks to the fact that many are biologically based behaviors.

The evolution of the body of human knowledge is special because we so easily share and copy it as well as make improvements. If the ancient Egyptians had cement, imagine what other processes were known and later forgotten? Perhaps worse, how many were deemed acts or gifts of gods which were thrown away in favor of newer gods?

This discovery holds big promises.

And just a bit more to add to the notion that our brains are not mystical, but wetware machines. Over at Neurology.com is a report indicating that an active brain is more active in protecting itself from aging ailments such as Alzheimer's. This report is about research regarding people who have been multilingual for a large portion of their lives. This requires extra effort in several parts of the brain, leading to the idea that activity increases protection against the barnacles of aging. A poor analogy would be to compare this extra activity in the brain to doing regular maintenance on your car or building.

There have been other studies which show that activity protects the brain from aging problems. Clearly, to me, this indicates the machine qualities of the brain vs magic. AI is possible unless there is magic involved.

If you need more evidence that your brain is more machine than magic, spend a few minutes with this video about the differences between humans and chimpanzees.

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