Mind Matters Natural and Artificial Intelligence News and Analysis

CategoryNatural Intelligence

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Phrenology Head

Phrenology: The Pseudoscience That Just Won’t Give Up

Are we arguing about this AGAIN?

Phrenology is the detailed study of cranial sizes and shapes as a proxy for brain size and shape. Practitioners believed themselves to be able to use this information as an indicator of both the character and the mental abilities of the person whose brain was being investigated. Phrenology has been widely discredited, and is thought by many today to be pseudoscience. However, the vestiges of phrenology remain with us today, and are still used to justify various common beliefs and inferences, even by otherwise very educated people. The most common way that this happens is the use of brain size in the evaluation of the character of human evolution. It is often supposed by researchers that brain size can be…

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model biological micro organism paramecium caudatum 3d illustration

Scientists Try To Understand How One-Celled Life Forms Learn

Artificial intelligence may offer a model for learning without a brain

According to a recent article in The Scientist, in the mid-twentieth century, several labs produced results that suggested that one-celled organisms could learn, in the sense that they could alter future behavior based on past experience. At the time, such findings were dismissed as flukes or mistakes because it was unclear how a unicellular life form like paramecium, with no brain or nervous system, could store memories. Today, a team from Harvard, Rutgers, and MIT is taking a second look at the findings of learning in paramecium: We exhume the experiments of Beatrice Gelber on Pavlovian conditioning in the ciliate Paramecium aurelia, and suggest that criticisms of her findings can now be reinterpreted. Gelber was a remarkable scientist whose absence…

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Nairobi, Kenya : Ranger feeding orphaned baby elephant in David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust conservation center

There Is No Escape From Human Exceptionalism

Author Melanie Challenger thinks we should embrace our true animal nature. But that’s impossible

Melanie Challenger, author of How to Be Animal (2021) thinks we would be less messed up if we could just accept our animal nature. She writes at Aeon, “Human exceptionalism is dead: for the sake of our own happiness and the planet we should embrace our true animal nature.” Further, Today, our thinking has shifted along with scientific evidence, incorporating the genetic insights of the past century. We now know we’re animals, related to all other life on our planet. We’ve also learned much about cognition, including the uneasy separation between instinct and intention, and the investment of the whole body in thought and action. As such, we might expect attitudes to have changed. But that isn’t the case. We…

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American staffordshire terrier dog with little kitten

Researchers Ponder Why Animals Adopt Other Species’ Orphans

Beliefs about what animals “should do” are often hampered by a lack of common sense reasoning and an outdated evolution theory

At The Conversation, evolutionary anthropologist Isabelle Catherine Winder (pictured) and anatomist Vivien Shaw pose a question, “Animal adoptions make no evolutionary sense, so why do they happen?“ For instance, scientists working with gorillas in Rwanda recently found the gorillas band together to take care of orphans. In these cases, young peers and (surprisingly) dominant adult males can be key to immature orphans’ survival. Perhaps it really does take a village to raise a child. Meanwhile researchers in DR Congo found that bonobos (apes closely related to chimpanzees) go even further, and sometimes adopt babies from a different social group. We even have examples of cross-species adoption, such as the dolphin who adopted and nursed a melon-headed whale, and a group…

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Ancient Forest, Hoh Rain Forest in Olympic National Park

Plants Help Each Other. Are They Self-Aware? Can They Suffer?

Recent discoveries that plants can do many things that we used to think only animals could do raise some interesting questions

In recent decades, we have learned that plants are much more like animals in their use of information than earlier thought. They have nervous systems that use glutamate to speed transmission, as mammals do. And seeking to thrive and grow, they communicate extensively. Recently, environmental journalist Richard Schiffman interviewed forest ecologist Suzanne Simard, author of the just-released Finding the Mother Tree on the intelligence of trees: You also found that birches give sugars to fir trees in the summer through the mycorrhizal networks and that firs return the favor by sending food to birches in the spring and fall, when the birches lack leaves. Isn’t that cool? Some scientists were having trouble with this: Why would a tree send photosynthetic…

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Kreuzspinne im Netz

Spiders May Not Know It But They Are Making Music

An MIT researcher has developed an algorithm that translates the delicate vibrations of spider webs into music

One of the presentations at the American Chemical Society’s Spring 2021 meeting featured an algorithm that makes music from the analysis of spiders’ webs: “The spider lives in an environment of vibrating strings,” says Markus Buehler, Ph.D., the project’s principal investigator, who is presenting the work. “They don’t see very well, so they sense their world through vibrations, which have different frequencies.” Such vibrations occur, for example, when the spider stretches a silk strand during construction, or when the wind or a trapped fly moves the web. Buehler, who has long been interested in music, wondered if he could extract rhythms and melodies of non-human origin from natural materials, such as spider webs. “Webs could be a new source for…

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Young girl playing with dolphin in Xel-ha park, Rivera Maya, Mexico

The Surprising Role Dolphins Have Played in the Search for ET

Dolphins, with their apparent alien intelligence, have been seen by scientists interested in ET as a stand-in

In a recent essay, Thomas Moynihan, a researcher with Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute, puts the explosion of interest in dolphin intelligence in context: It began during the Space Race (1957–1998) — which helped fuel and fund the search for extraterrestrial intelligences. Its development also coincided withe Cold War (1946–1991) between the US and the USSR. In 1961, amid the growing tensions, neuroscientist John C. Lilly claimed that he had made contact with the first “alien” intelligence. But, as Moynihan says, Lilly “wasn’t talking about little green men from Tau Ceti, he was talking of minds much closer to home: bottlenose dolphins.” Why dolphins? As Moynihan recounts, from ancient times, mariners knew that dolphins were intelligent and modern zoologists like…

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Chimpanzee with a hand in its mouth

Bonobo Chimpanzees Adopt Orphans, a First for Great Apes

But this story is not what it seems. Let’s cut through some pop science assumptions. The real story is an argument that humans are not just animals

There’s been a stir recently among primate zoologists around two female bonobos who adopted infants from outside their group: During observations at the Luo Scientific Reserve in Wamba, Democratic Republic of the Congo, the scientists saw the mother bonobos (Pan paniscus) carrying, grooming, nursing, and sharing food with their adoptees, who were in excellent health and treated well by their new social groups. The team’s analysis of DNA extracted from the infants’ faeces confirmed that the youngsters were genetically unrelated to the groups they lived in. “Bonobo mums open their arms to outsider orphans” at Nature Why do they do it? Various explanations are offered: The researchers suggest, “In both cases, adoptees had no maternal kin-relationship with their adoptive mothers.…

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Labrador Welpe und junge Frau geben sich ein High Five

Researchers: Dogs Are Hardwired To Understand Us

Recent research on nearly 400 Labrador puppies reveals a genetic basis for a tendency to look to humans for guidance

Considerable mystery surrounds the question of why dogs achieve a close emotional relationship with humans. Chimpanzees are genetically very much closer to us but few of us bond with them. So the ability is not obviously genetic — but recent findings point to at least one genetic component: Puppies seem naturally adapted to learn the significance of a common human communication method, pointing: Scientists have known for more than 2 decades that dogs understand the logic behind a surprisingly complex gesture: When we point at something, we want them to look at it. That insight eludes even our closest relatives, chimpanzees, and helps our canine companions bond with us. But it’s been unclear whether pooches acquire this ability simply by…

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the toss

Spot and Choose: Fair Play is Uniquely Human

How snake drafts, cake cuts, and queues exemplify human uniqueness

In the National Basketball Association All-Star exhibition game that was played yesterday, Team LeBron defeated Team Durant by a score of 170-150. The captains (LeBron James and Kevin Durant, both pictured) had taken turns choosing players for their teams. LeBron got the first pick (Giannis Antetokounmpo), Durant the second (Steph Curry), LeBron the third (Luka Doncic), and so on. The talent is so uniform among the top two dozen NBA players that there is no real advantage to choosing first or second: any given player is arguably as good or better than the player chosen before him. In addition, the game is just an exhibition intended to entertain the fans with spectacular offensive plays, while the defense mainly tries to…

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close up of a red ant face in white

Can Insects, Bacteria, and Plants Have Personalities Too?

If personality amounts to observed individual differences in behavior, the answer is yes, though the issues are more complex for plants

Yesterday, we looked at a paper in which researchers reported that marmosets (a South American monkey) have personalities. Most of us would simply assume that they do and we are right to think so. Research on many vertebrate animal species shows that even reptiles and fish have personalities. Of course, the number of dimensions a vertebrate’s personality can have varies with its intellectual and lifestyle complexity. But now, what about the vast world of the invertebrates, the life forms whose body is not organized around a spinal cord terminating in a brain? Their body plans can vary from that of a starfish through to a honeybee. Can they have personalities, despite very different brain arrangements, including — in some cases…

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Silvery marmoset (Mico argentatus).

Why Do Researchers Wonder Whether Animals Have Personalities?

Every friend of dogs, cats, or birds knows what some researchers struggle to prove. Let’s take a look at what they found

Recently, a research team announced that marmosets — small highly social New World monkeys — display personality traits, whether they are wild or captive: Some individuals were fast to approach any novelty, while others were more careful; hereby showing a similar pattern to humans: for instance, some humans enjoy trying out new restaurants, whereas others prefer to eat in their favorite restaurant. What is more interesting, when comparing personality traits of monkeys in Austria across four years, the authors found that these monkeys are quite consistent in their personality traits (e.g., those that are explorative when they are younger, stay similarly explorative four years afterwards). University of Vienna, “Marmoset Monkeys Have Personalities Too” at Neuroscience News The paper is open…

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Border collie dog catching frisbee in jump

Researchers Disappointed By Efforts to Teach AI Common Sense

When it comes to common sense, can the researchers really dispense with the importance of life experience?

A recent experiment showed that AI still does not show common sense: “Current machine text-generation models can write an article that may be convincing to many humans, but they’re basically mimicking what they have seen in the training phase,” said [PhD student Yuchen] Lin. “Our goal in this paper is to study the problem of whether current state-of-the-art text-generation models can write sentences to describe natural scenarios in our everyday lives.” University of Southern California, “New test reveals AI still lacks common sense” at ScienceDaily The paper is open access. Essentially, fake news bots can sound like the New York Times or marketing copy by generating mimics, after taking in thousands of natural examples. But it isn’t thinking about any…

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The New Caledonian crow bird on the tree. Raven in tropical jungle

We Knew Crows Were Smart But They Turn Out To Be Even Smarter

We are only beginning to scratch the surface of the mysteries of animal intelligence

Recently, some researchers have claimed that crows — already known to be smart — are even conscious: Nieder’s experiment showed that the birds were actively evaluating how to solve a particular problem they were confronted with. In effect, they were thinking it over. This ability to consciously assess a problem is associated with the cerebral cortex in the brains of humans. But birds have no cerebral cortex. Nieder found that in crows, thinking occurs in the pallium—the layers of gray and white matter covering the upper surface of the cerebrum in vertebrates. Other studies support the notion that the bird brain can, in principle, support the development of higher intelligence. This idea had been dismissed in the past due to…

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Robot eyes closeup

Can Robots Be Engineered To Actually Feel Pain?

The descriptions of recent robotics successes slide effortlessly from “can experience” the sense of touch down to “simulate” sensations of pain

Recently, an article in Neuroscience News made some confusing claims, especially the claim that robots can have experiences in the same sense as living entities can. Let’s look at some of them: In an article from HSE University in Russia about about developing robotic intelligence based on the human brain, we read: Today, neuroscience and robotics are developing hand in hand. Mikhail Lebedev, Academic Supervisor at HSE University’s Centre for Bioelectric Interfaces, spoke about how studying the brain inspires the development of robots. HSE University, “How Modern Robots Are Developed” at Neuroscience News February 3, 2021 One identified goal is to merge “biological organisms with machines, to create cybernetic organisms (cyborgs).” Given that the human brain does not really behave…

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Programming language and development of applications concept on yellow blue background. Training courses of php, sql, html, css and other disciplines.

Human Ingenuity vs. the Computer’s Halting Problem

In a dialogue with a friendly skeptic, I suggested an explanation he found astounding but it’s the only possible one

When studying computer science a student invariably learns about the infamous halting problem. The problem states there is no general algorithm that can determine for every deterministic computer program whether that program will halt or not. This struck me as absurd when I first learned of the problem. Surely a whizkid like myself could design a simple algorithm to track the program’s memory and catch when it started repeating itself and determined it would not halt. Once convinced the problem was indeed provably unsolvable, I then thought the problem must show that humans are not computers. This is because it seems intuitive that for every program, if I watch it enough and think about it carefully enough, I should be…

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baby chimpanzee ape at the zoo.

If DNA Doesn’t Make Humans Different From Chimps, What Does?

How do we get to Beethoven’s Fifth and quantum theory?

Some neuroscientists think they have an idea worth pursuing: With only 1% difference, the human and chimpanzee protein-coding genomes are remarkably similar. Understanding the biological features that make us human is part of a fascinating and intensely debated line of research. Researchers at the SIB Swiss Institute of Bioinformatics and the University of Lausanne have developed a new approach to pinpoint, for the first time, adaptive human-specific changes in the way genes are regulated in the brain… To explain what sets human apart from their ape relatives, researchers have long hypothesized that it is not so much the DNA sequence, but rather the regulation of the genes (i.e. when, where and how strongly the gene is expressed), that plays the…

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Close up portrait of a common raven (corvus corax)

At Scientific American: Ravens Are As Smart As Chimpanzees

Birds have a different brain structure from mammals but that doesn’t appear to limit natural intelligence

We wrote about this earlier but now Scientific American has weighed in. Researchers were trying to address the deficiency in studies of raven intelligence that focused only on whether the bird knew that the researcher was hiding something: A new study that that tries to address that deficit provides some of the best proof yet that ravens, including young birds of just four months of age, have certain types of smarts that are on par with those of adult great apes. The brainy birds performed just as well as chimpanzees and orangutans across a broad array of tasks designed to measure intelligence. “We now have very strong evidence to say that, at least in the tasks we used, ravens are…

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A raven in Dartmoor, UK

So Now Ravens Are As Smart As Chimpanzees…

But wait! Weren’t chimpanzees supposed to be the closest thing to humans?

Researchers tested ravens they had raised themselves (“hand-raised”), starting at four months of age (not far from the egg…) and then at 8, 12, and 16 months of age on a series of cognitive skills, compared to chimpanzees: Comparing the cognitive performance of the ravens with those of 106 chimpanzees and 32 orangutans who completed similar tasks in a previous study, the authors found that with the exception of spatial memory, the cognitive performance of the ravens was very similar to those of orangutans and chimpanzees. Nature Publishing Group , “Cognitive performance of four-months-old ravens may parallel adult apes” at Phys.org Here’s the open-access study. The authors offer an explanation: The findings provide evidence that ravens, similarly to great apes,…

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3D Illustration Emotionen als Freisteller

Can We Teach a Computer to Feel Things? A Dialogue…

Okay, There’s the computer’s side… and then there’s the dog’s side. Listen to both

The dialogue got started because of a gifted computer nerd, Rosalind Picard, also a playwright (pictured), who decided to become an evangelical Christian in midlife (approx 2019). As she tells it, “a flat, black-and-white existence suddenly turned full-color and three-dimensional.” The director of MIT’s Media Lab, she had also written a book in 2000 called Affective Computing which seems to suggest that one could somehow give emotions to machines. I asked Eric Holloway to help me figure that one out: O’Leary: Emotions are based on actual well-being or suffering. How can something that is not alive have actual emotions? Don’t think of people here!; think of dogs. Dogs have emotions. When my computer is giving trouble, I certainly hope it’s…