A Universal Classification of Intelligence

I’ve been thinking lately about whether or not it is possible to formulate a scale of universal cognitive capabilities, such that any intelligent system — whether naturally occurring or synthetic — can be classified according to its cognitive capacity. Such a system would provide us with a normalized scientific basis by which to quantify and compare the relative cognitive capabilities of artificially intelligent systems, various species of intelligent life on Earth, and perhaps even intelligent lifeforms encountered on other planets.

One approach to such evaluation is to use a standardized test, such as an IQ test. However, this test is far too primitive and biased towards human intelligence. A dolphin would do poorly on our standardized IQ test, but that doesn’t mean much, because the test itself is geared towards humans. What is needed is a way to evaluate and compare intelligence across different species — one that is much more granular and basic.

What we need is a system that focuses on basic building blocks of intelligence, starting by measuring the presence or ability to work with fundamental cognitive constructs (such as the notion of object constancy, quantities, basic arithmetic constructs, self-constructs, etc.) and moving up towards higher-level abstractions and procedural capabilities (self-awareness, time, space, spatial and temporal reasoning, metaphors, sets, language, induction, logical reasoning, etc.).

What I am asking is whether we can develop a more "universal" way to rate and compare intelligences? Such a system would provide a way to formally evaluate and rate any kind of intelligent system — whether insect, animal, human, software, or alien — in a normalized manner.

Beyond the inherent utility of having such a rating scale, there is an additional benefit to trying to formulate this system: It will lead us to really question and explore the nature of cognition itself. I believe we are moving into an age of intelligence — an age where humanity will explore the brain and the mind (the true "final frontier"). In order to explore this frontier, we need a map — and the rating scale I am calling for would provide us with one, for it maps the range of possible capabilities that intelligent systems are capable of.

I’m not as concerned with measuring the degree to which any system is more or less capable of some particular cognitive capability within the space of possible capabilities we map (such as how fast it can do algebra for example, or how well it can recall memories, etc.) — but that is a useful second step. The first step, however, is to simply provide a comprehensive map of all the possible fundamental cognitive behaviors there are — and to make this map as minimal and elegant as we can. Ideally we should be seeking the simplest set of cognitive building blocks from which all cognitive behavior, and therefore all minds, are comprised.

So the question is: Are there in fact "cognitive universals" or universal cognitive capabilities that we can generalize across all possible intelligent systems? This is a fascinating question — although we are human, can we not only imagine, but even prove, that there is a set of basic universal cognitive capabilities that applies everywhere in the universe, or even in other possible universes? This is an exploration that leads into the region where science, pure math, philosophy, and perhaps even spirituality all converge. Ultimately, this map must cover the full range of cognitive capabilities from the most mundane, to what might be (from our perspective) paranormal, or even in the realm of science fiction. Ordinary cognition as well as forms of altered or unhealthy cognition, as well as highly advanced or even what might be said to be enlightened cognition, all have to fit into this model.

Can we develop a system that would apply not just to any form of intelligence on Earth, but even to far-flung intelligent organisms that might exist on other worlds, and that perhaps might exist in dramatically different environments than humans? And how might we develop and test this model?

I would propose that such a system could be developed and tuned by testing it across the range of forms of intelligent life we find on Earth — including social insects (termite colonies, bee hives, etc.), a wide range of other animal species (dogs, birds, chimpanzees, dolphins, whales, etc.), human individuals, and human social organizations (teams, communities, enterprises). Since there are very few examples of artificial intelligence today it would be hard to find suitable systems to test it on, but perhaps there may be a few candidates in the next decade. We should also attempt to imagine forms of intelligence on other planets that might have extremely different sensory capabilities, totally different bodies, and perhaps that exist on very different timescales or spatial scales as well — what would such exotic, alien intelligences be like, and can our model encompass the basic building blocks of their cognition as well?

It will take decades to develop and tune a system such as this, and as we learn more about the brain and the mind, we will continue to add subtlety to the model. But when humanity finally establishes open dialog with an extraterrestrial civilization, perhaps via SETI or some other means of more direct contact, we will reap important rewards. A system such as what I am proposing will provide us with a valuable map for understanding alien cognition, and that may prove to be the key to enabling humanity to engage in successful interactions and relations with alien civilizations as we may inevitably encounter as humanity spreads throughout the galaxy. While some skeptics may claim that we will never encounter intelligent life on other planets, the odds would indicate otherwise. It may take a long time, but eventually it is inevitable that we will cross paths — if they exist at all. Not to be prepared would be irresponsible.