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.

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6 Responses to A Universal Classification of Intelligence

  1. zeb hodge says:

    This is really intriguing, Nova!
    What IS intelligence? I mean, sure, I know it when I see it, but you’re talking about discerning evidences of intelligence, sometimes before seeing them.
    In this context, what is “intelligence”? The answer is probably as difficult as a universal classification would be!
    Still, I agree that it is a worthy pursuit. I believe it will become easier to answer these questions as this Collective Intelligence (enabled in its embryonic stage by semantic technologies) begins to encompass more of humanity, because doing so will give us a better handle of WHAT intelligence is.

  2. Andreas Beer says:

    Try this first:
    Compile a list of cognitive skills.
    It is one of my tasks, that I want to write down for the wikipedia, but it’s really amazing that with cognitive scientists being all over the world, none of them has ever created a systematic list of skills. They all say something like “memory, deciding, planning, etc.” The etc. is up to us to find out, it seems. I googled a lot, I have a book on Cognitive Science, none answers the question.
    But I think for your idea, this is an absolute sine qua non. If you want to join in on this project, let me know 🙂

  3. Nova, very interesting topic, here’s my response…[

  4. Paul Coffey says:

    Nova – pardon me for bringing you back down to Earth (no pun intended) but, don’t you think it is a little self-aggrandizing to even assume that we could be capable of a *Universal* Classification of Intelligence.
    How do we know that our UCI – borne from finite, minuscule knowledge of the universe – could accommodate the various yet-to-be-uncovered intelligences that you talk of?

  5. Robert Wilson says:

    Dear Nova:
    A universal classification of intelligence is not possible, as long as we focus on the word classification. Put another way, our penchant, at this stage of our collective evolution, for categories as a precondition for understanding, damages or taints the nature of intelligence (however it may be defined), in the same way that our minds affect the outcome and reality of quantum events. Categories distort. Is intelligence a subset of consciousness or is consciousness a subset of intelligence? The “map” is in constant motion and cuts across dimensions we grasp as well as those dimensions beyond our grasp (both consciously and unconsciously — both of which in turn can be distinguished from consciousness in a Jungian collective sense and a Sheldrakian morphic resonance sense and Castanedian dream sense). Part of the challenge today is to realize that it is intelligence that has brought us to the brink. At least in this bottom line view, the “geniuses” amongst us have created a world that is imploding — at least potentially for our species. If Gaia is an intelligence, then the task (our task) is to link intelligence firmly to our individual and collective imaginations as the only anchor to make this world a better place. Treating imagination as the Christ, the realization and manifestation of God in man/woman (Christ in this sense has no religious affiliation). Raising consciousness to create a healthier planet is a first step. The world’s great universities are producing geniuses it is true, but genius without consciousness is exactly what brought us the Nazis. The “rating” of intelligence is simply more of this same mentality. In your piece, there is a back and forth motion between mind (in a monstrously broad sense) and brain which serves as cognitive sciences’ anchor. The universal classification impulse then is an exercise that repeats a paradigm. Kashmir Shavism holds a key: namely, that there is “nothing out there” — it is all, absolutely all of it, both the universe and nothingness, in our mind(s). We are in short, what you are looking for.

  6. Shpackov Alexander Andreevich says:

    Dr. Nova!
    “The Universal Classification of Intelligent” is methodoligical mistake, and it show that You have not understand classification theory. It speaks: “Universal Classification is single scheme, and it is impossible to exist such soject like “Universal Classification of Intelligent”. Classification of intelligence may be only part of the thrue Universal Classification /Shpackov A.A. J. Am. Soc. Inf. Sci, v. 43, no. 10, 1992/.