The Case for Natural Intelligence (3/3)

Part 2

Develop Natural Intelligence

In my previous posts I tried to show how AI, with all its power at executing the most complex procedures, need not be seen as mainly a threat ; however to take advantage of its beneficial potential we probably need to foster our own human, natural intelligence.

There are two ways to do it both very quickly and with dramatic effect ; and these ways can also be deployed in the educational field to raise the future generations far above ourselves – instead of making them as dumb as possible.

Hunt the Mammoth !

The first way to become more intelligent is almost instantaneous : think with others. The Neanderthals have risen to hunt mammoths (as in “the 4m-tall hairy thing with long tusks and short temper”) with silex-tipped spears and torches ; and they could do it because they discovered coordination. That should work for us as well.

Is it a fair point though ? Or any revelation in any sens ? Of course we know that collective thinking is precious, and it is already in place in many organizations – is it not the point of business meetings ?

Yes, I admit that the enterprise culture has shifted, regarding its own global capability, from a point of view considering only execution one including decision and execution. The Agile methods have established the direct contact between the client and the developer at their heart. And the quality circles of Toyota, which include workers as actors of the quality process, have made quality levels soar.

But these processes, that take into account the value of making producers participate in the decision, are exceptions. Most processes today are still heavily geared toward driving execution with few or no room for adaptation (hence the abysmal record on software project delivery, see the 2016 Chaos Report for additional cringe). Processes for collective execution include the famous Pert/Gannt graphs, Kanban boards, timesheet reporting, etc.

There is no collective process for decision – the brainstorm process collectively builds different options, but does not choose. This is why business meetings are so often a mess : without a procedure to organize the collective intellectual work, you cannot ensure that members of the meeting will ever take a decision or even talk about the relevant subjects. I remember a cartoon placated on a meeting room depicting a strong leader saying “We won’t leave this room until we know 1) who organized the meeting and 2) what we are supposed to decide !“. Many mature organization have adopted processes for their meetings, but these generally end up recapitulating to everyone decisions already made.

S.elect is our mobile application that aims at solving part of the problem, because as a tool it generates a collective process of decision-making. Among other features, it focuses on discussions that are useful to strengthen the current consensus or overthrow it if there is good reason to.

It is not yet proven that the enterprise culture is generally compatible with a collective decision process, because human organizations are also about social status, and the power (and responsibility) to decide are an integral part of what it means to progress in the hierarchy. S.elect is currently in field testing, so we expect to have some feedback this spring.

Anyway, Hunting the Mammoth is not only about work meetings. It is also about speaking with colleagues and friends about problems that you feel larger than yourself, and decisions that can have dramatic consequences. Modern life is conspiring in a thousand ways to make us alone, and we have to fight it. The social tools are as useful as they are letting you meet face to face with people to whom you can tell your story and hear theirs.

Fairy tales

The most ancient form of literature is probably Fairy Tales, and it has very probably molded not only our institutions and customs, but our thinking functions, maybe our very physiology. There is a powerful anecdote on that matter, which comes in several flavors, as fairy tales do…

A woman once asked Albert Einstein what books she should read her small son, for him to become a successful scientist. Einstein answered “fairy tales”. “And what then ?” did the woman ask. “More fairy tales” replied Einstein.

There is something incredible here, and that is that Einstein was not making fun of an overly concerned mother, or showing the unconventional streak that was an integral part of his character. There is plenty of evidence that what he said is just literally true, or more precisely that stories are the building block of complex reasoning, as they allow us to associate and recall complex sets of information.

The first evidence resides in long-term memorization techniques, that convert conventions to short stories, so as to avoid the short-term memory trap. For instance, the spanish word for to sit is sentar. To remember that effortlessly for all your life, you only need to tell yourself that “Centaurs do not sit“. It will instantly catch your imagination, and recovering sentar from centaur comes very easily. If on the other hand you learn the pair (sentar, to sit) without a unifying meaning, then you will have a hard time remembering it without repeating the association several times.

Why do we long-term remember stories ? Because the long-term memory is operated by the left brain, as is language. Once could even argue that stories are the very form of long-term memories. And of course we have other stories than fairy tales : everything with a unifying meaning is a story. The lesson is, that we can remember things with great accuracy and resilience if we make them into a story and we tell the story – either by writing or before an audience.

The fullest set of evidence is related to conscious perception. Consciousness indeed plays a huge role in fine-grained perceptions, and is primarily the transformation of perceptions into a story – with the object being perceived as the unifying meaning. I am aware that it is a bold claim, but I support it with a proposal of experience that everybody can try for himself

Choose a picture / painting that you like, and describe it to someone else, in its graphical from but also in the things it evokes. Do it in writing or orally – but do it in detail. After this exercise, look at the picture again. I promise your effort will be rewarded. Your senses will have expanded and it will seem you see it with new eyes.

Given that perception is at the heart of the interaction loop, the general quality of your work can be significantly upgraded by a better perception of the problem at hand – or the tool you use. Be it physical or intellectual work, we have proof of that in a school remediation method using this very technique – make the child conscious of what he is doing by having him say it while doing it. I have seen the comparison of two copies by the same pupil on a writing test, one done without speaking and the other done while speaking aloud. The note went from F to A : one huge error every four words to two minor errors for the whole text.

Of course it is the opposite of what the school trends are : our children are taught to read silently, to read fast, to learn lists of words (as opposed to meeting words in stories), to write less every year – it is easier to move word tags around. These teaching methods have the effect of separating the language and the problem-solving. This is why children take the habit if finding (in their right-brain memory) the first answer that seem to fit the question. This is partly why we have had these last years an epidemic of dyslexia, dysgraphy and attention disorder diagnostics, although these affections are not contagious.

I hate to finish this article on such a bleak perspective for our kids, but it would be treason not to mention the harm currently done to them with the best intentions. And there is much hope to have ; because these remediation sessions have shown that a few weeks or months are enough to re-create the lacking or inhibited conscious perceptions – almost at any age. There is no doom, if the debate on education can be opened I am confident that the right decision will soon reverse the decaying trend.

It also served my purpose of waking us up in advance of the coming AI tide ; because to a certain extent we are also limited by the same speech inhibitions – it is just that we cannot think them, therefore not see them. These limitations we must lift or break, because we now need to become capable of imagining our future with the machines. The good news is that what we need to do is well within our reach : it is what humanity has been doing for a long time ; and it is mostly free.