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Is the octopus a “second genesis of intelligence”?

Can its strange powers provide insights for robotics or the human mind?

California two-spot octopus, by Tom Kleindinst via Marine Biological Laboratory.

We know that the octopus is smart but the hardware “has little in common with the mammalian design”:

While the octopus has a large central brain in its head, it also has a unique network of smaller ‘brains’ within each of its arms. It’s just what these creatures need to coordinate the mind-boggling complexity of eight prehensile arms and hundreds of sensitive suckers, which provide the octopus with the equivalent of opposable thumbs (roboticists have been taking note)…

For instance, an octopus escaping a predator can detach an arm that will happily continue crawling around for up to 10 minutes.

Indeed, until an experiment by Kuba and colleagues in 2011, some suspected the arms’ movements were independent of their central brain. They aren’t. Rather it appears that the brain gives a high-level command that a staff of eight arms execute autonomously.

This from an animal related to oysters.

“The arm has some fascinating reflexes, but it doesn’t learn,” says Kuba, who studied these reflexes between 2009 and 2013 as part of a European Union project to design bio-inspired robots. Elizabeth Finkel, “How the octopus got its smarts” at Cosmos

Some think that a clue might lie in an oddity of the octopus’s genes. The octopus has a very large genome and can edit their own genomes, altering their RNA. They “ do not always follow their genetic instructions to the letter:”

In humans, tweaking is rare – restricted to a handful of brain gene recipes. In the squid, the majority of brain recipes received this treatment. Many of them were related to proteins found at the synapses, the microprocessors for memory and learning.

Could this extemporising with brain protein recipes be important for soft intelligence? It’s a tantalising idea. “Coleoids show it. Nautilus – the stupid cousin – does not, it’s like any other mollusc,” says Eisenberg. Elizabeth Finkel, “How the octopus got its smarts” at Cosmos

Some think that this editing ability might have slowed down the octopus’s evolution (thought to have started about 100 million years ago) by random processes. That calls into question how much evolution is due to random processes anyway. As Evolution News & Science Today notes, “The implications for Darwin’s tree of life are clear. If animals are able to “defy genetics’ ‘central dogma’” (Phys.org) and take evolution into their own hands, no wonder the tree managers are scrambling.”

What’s really interesting about these stories is that, while we are learning that there is much intelligence in the animal (and plant) world, including some that can be applied to robotics, very little sheds light on explicitly human intelligence. In the end, we are studying octopuses in a way that they are not studying us. And while people predict that machines will soon  “achieve human intelligence” or claim that chimpanzees are intelligent like humans (but, we are told, IQ tests are unfair to them),  we actually do not know what makes human consciousness so different. Prediction is much easier when the topic cannot be pinned down.

See also: Does intelligence depend on a specific type of brain?

Is the octopus a “second genesis of intelligence”?