Stephen Cave (at Aeon) writes ostensibly to place our fears of “intelligent robots” and AI (Artificial Intelligence) in perspective, but in the process he offers a fascinating critique of “intelligence” itself as a politicized concept that has long been used to serve the interests of socially dominant classes.
Mr. Cave begins at the beginning—at his own beginning, at any rate:
I was growing up in England in the latter half of the 20th century, the concept of intelligence loomed large. It was aspired to, debated and – most important of all – measured. At the age of 11, tens of thousands of us all around the country were ushered into desk-lined halls to take an IQ test known as the 11-Plus. The results of those few short hours would determine who would go to grammar school, to be prepared for university and the professions; who was destined for technical school and thence skilled work; and who would head to secondary modern school, to be drilled in the basics then sent out to a life of low-status manual labour.
IQ testing—what Stephen Jay Gould called “the mismeasure of man”—was a 20th-century development, but as Cave points out, it was based on a much older idea:
The idea that intelligence could be quantified, like blood pressure or shoe size, was barely a century old when I took the test that would decide my place in the world. But the notion that intelligence could determine one’s station in life was already much older. It runs like a red thread through Western thought, from the philosophy of Plato to the policies of UK prime minister Theresa May. To say that someone is or is not intelligent has never been merely a comment on their mental faculties. It is always also a judgment on what they are permitted to do. Intelligence, in other words, is political.
Cave explains the even darker side of politicized intelligence:
As well as determining what a person can do, their intelligence – or putative lack of it – has been used to decide what others can do to them. Throughout Western history, those deemed less intelligent have, as a consequence of that judgment, been colonised, enslaved, sterilised and murdered (and indeed eaten, if we include non-human animals in our reckoning)…
At the dawn of Western philosophy, we have intelligence identified with the European, educated, male human. It becomes an argument for his right to dominate women, the lower classes, uncivilised peoples and non-human animals…more than 2,000 years later, the train of thought that [Plato and Aristotle] set in motion has yet to be derailed…The idea that intelligence defines humanity persisted into the Enlightenment. It was enthusiastically embraced by Immanuel Kant, probably the most influential moral philosopher since the ancients. For Kant, only reasoning creatures had moral standing. Rational beings were to be called ‘persons’ and were ‘ends in themselves’. Beings that were not rational, on the other hand, had ‘only a relative value as means, and are therefore called things’. We could do with them what we liked.
According to Kant, the reasoning being – today, we’d say the intelligent being – has infinite worth or dignity, whereas the unreasoning or unintelligent one has none. His arguments are more sophisticated, but essentially he arrives at the same conclusion as Aristotle: there are natural masters and natural slaves, and intelligence is what distinguishes them.
What we today call “meritocracy” is of course no such thing; at best, it is only about one particular kind of merit, i.e. intelligence in the pursuit of material gain, because wealth is apparently the ultimate proof of intelligence. (There is after all no adage that says “If you’re so smart, why aren’t you poor?”) We could, if we wanted to, have a meritocracy of kindness or a meritocracy of generosity; but we don’t.
Cave pivots back to his original topic:
When we reflect upon how the idea of intelligence has been used to justify privilege and domination throughout more than 2,000 years of history, is it any wonder that the imminent prospect of super-smart robots fills us with dread?
It’s interesting to speculate about how we’d view the rise of AI if we had a different view of intelligence…Other traditions, especially those from the East, see the intelligent person as one who scorns the trappings of power as mere vanity, and who removes him or herself from the trivialities and tribulations of quotidian affairs.
Imagine if such views were widespread: if we all thought that the most intelligent people were not those who claimed the right to rule, but those who went to meditate in remote places, to free themselves of worldly desires; or if the cleverest of all were those who returned to spread peace and enlightenment. Would we still fear robots smarter than ourselves?
Enlightened robots! Robots that meditate! Robot gurus!
Yeah, I’d still be afraid of them: because they would still be robots.