Mind Matters Natural and Artificial Intelligence News and Analysis

CategoryNatural Intelligence

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Glasswing butterfly

Technology? Hey, Bugs Invented It All Before Us!

Do bugs really show no evidence of design? Computer engineers can test that

Bugs look like little robots, don’t they? Living robots, too, defying our best our attempts to recreate something like them. A 2018 science paper “It’s Not a Bug, It’s a Feature: Functional Materials in Insects” goes into just how amazing these little creatures are from a materials sciences perspective. The paper is open access so you can read it for yourself. But let me also illustrate some of the remarkable “technologies” insects use, captured on video: This bionic “dragonfly” really flies, sort of: But so do billions of wild dragonflies who fly very efficiently, in order to hunt: The range of material capabilities is astonishing. Cicadas have a clicking loudspeaker they use to amplify their racket. Tiger moths have a…

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Tumor cell under attack of white blood cells

Why Do Many Scientists See Cells as Intelligent?

Bacteria appear to show intelligent behavior. But what about individual cells in our bodies?

Recently, we talked about the ways in which bacteria are intelligent. Researchers into antibiotic resistance must deal with the surprisingly complex ways bacteria “think” in order to counter them. For example, some bacteria may warn others while dying from antibiotics. But what about individual cells in our bodies? A skeptic might say that bacteria are, after all, individual entities like dogs or cats. There is evidence that individual life forms can show intelligence even with no brain. But dependent cells? Surprisingly, cells that are not independent at all but part of a body can also show something that looks like intelligence, as Michael Denton discusses in Miracle of the Cell (2020): No one who has observed a leucocyte (a white…

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man sitting and feeding birds

Pigeons Can Solve the Monty Hall Problem. But Can You?

The dilemma pits human folk intuition against actual probability theory, with surprising results

Animals often outperform humans. My son’s dog is more friendly than I could ever be. Cheetahs run faster, baby horses walk earlier, and elephants can lift more. Birds fly and humans can’t. Is there anything else birds can do better than humans? Yes. Apparently, pigeons learn to solve the Monty Hall problem more quickly. Let’s Make a Deal was a television game show first hosted by Monty Hall (1921–2017) in 1963. There have been various remakes since then. The basic idea is that there are three doors and a contestant’s job is to barter with Monty for the most valuable prize behind the doors. The Monty Hall problem, loosely based on the quiz show, was popularized by Marilyn vos Savant…

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Closeup of housefly

Human, Mouse, and Fly Brains All Use the Same Basic Mechanisms

The study of brains in recent decades has yielded a very different picture from the patterns we might have expected

With differing outcomes, of course: A new study led by researchers from King’s College London has shown that humans, mice and flies share the same fundamental genetic mechanisms that regulate the formation and function of brain areas involved in attention and movement control. News Centre, “Humans and flies employ very similar mechanisms for brain development and function” at King’s College London (August 3, 2020) We might have expected a gradual increase in size and complexity, corresponding with ability, leading up to the human brain. But we have learned from recent research that lemurs, with brains 1/200 the size of chimps’, pass same IQ test (the Primate Cognition Test Battery). Human intellectual abilities are orders of magnitude greater than that of…

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World Alzheimer’s day concept. Human hands holding brain of earth over blurred blue nature background. Elements of this image furnished by NASA

Why a Science Fiction Writer Thinks Life Is More Than Just Matter

Many animals and even bacteria show behavior that smacks of thinking, he says
Science fiction author and retired internist Geoffrey Simmons talks about the amazing intelligence that life forms, even cells, show. Read More ›
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Gray Mouse Lemur, microcebus murinus

Lemurs with Brains 1/200 the Size of Chimps’ Pass Same IQ Test

This new finding about mouse lemurs also makes human exceptionalism more exceptional
Researchers were surprise to discover recently that the mouse lemur, a tiny primate whose brain is 1/200th the size of a chimpanzee’s brain, did as well as great apes on a primate intelligence test. Read More ›
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Pair of ravens in courtship. Corvus corax

Why Does Science Embrace the “Talking Animals” Myth?

Many birds are quite smart but why do some researchers imply that they think like people?

In recent years, studies have confirmed a widespread cultural intuition that some birds, particularly corvids like crows and ravens, are “smart.” They show considerable problem-solving skills. Thus, they loom large in mythology as messengers and tricksters. For example, the Norse king of the gods (pictured) had two ravens as advisors. Oddly enough, science today retains the mythology and makes a curious use of it: New discoveries about the specifics of corvid brain organization and intelligence are framed as demonstrating that humans do not really have as exceptional thinking ability as we suppose: Research unveiled on Thursday in Science finds that crows know what they know and can ponder the content of their own minds, a manifestation of higher intelligence and…

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virtual keyboard

SwiftKey Co-founder: Computers Can’t Just “Evolve” Intelligence

Can vain hopes for AI spring from a wrong understanding of evolution?
Ben Medlock asks us to look at self-organization as a principle of life, lacking in computers. Read More ›
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Antibiotic resistant bacteria inside a biofilm, 3D illustration. Realistic scientific background

Do Bacteria Warn Others While Dying from Antibiotics?

Scientists are learning more about the complex ways bacteria overcome efforts to control them

That’s what we learn from a new open-access paper in Nature titled “Dead cells release a ‘necrosignal’ that activates antibiotic survival pathways in bacterial swarms.” It’s sometimes described as “screams,” but it’s actually a release of chemicals, which amounts to the same thing: a warning to prepare for an onslaught of antibiotics. The scientists also noted another curious factor: The cascade of genes turned on by necrosignals not only protected the surviving swarm from antibiotics, but promoted future resistance to the compounds that killed their comrades. What’s more, the scientists realized that subpopulations of swarm bacteria were genetically variable; some were more susceptible to the antibiotics than others. Swarms of bacteria may collectively cultivate different subpopulations as an evolutionary survival…

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Cat looks strange look in the night

Some Mysteries About Cats … Solved!

Pet dogs outnumber cats but they’ll never excel at creating the aura of mystery at which the cat effortlessly succeeds

Following up on the ways cats are intelligent, it might be fun to look at how humans got involved with them. It turns out that there are reasons why we have always found cats mysterious, compared to dogs. Why are people so fond of cats? There are lots of reasons but here’s an interesting find: Domestic cats’ meows for attention are said to be unique to their relationship with humans. Oxford neuroscientist Morten Kringelbach has found a way to map human responses via magnetoencephalograph (MEG) studies that measure electrical activity in our brains in real time. He found that the cry of a baby triggered a response in the orbitofrontal cortex before study subjects had identified the sound consciously. Adult…

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Cat and robotic vacuum cleaner in the room. Fluffy british shorthair cat is playing with a robotic vacuum.

In What Ways Are Cats Intelligent?

Cats have nearly twice as many neurons as dogs and a bigger and more complex cerebral cortex

It’s hard to come up with an interspecies IQ test. We live in a world where dogs are smarter than wolves in some ways but wolves are smarter than dogs in others. So much depends on what we want to measure. So let’s look at cats in relation to dogs because dogs have been studied so much more. Dogs are often seen as smarter than cats because they can do more jobs for humans. But humans bred dogs for millennia to do those very jobs. Cats have also made themselves useful to humans by killing pest rodents. But we best help the cat kill rodents just by getting out of his way. Thus, to assess cat intelligence vs. dog intelligence,…

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Jumping spider close up. Macro photography. Portrait of spider

In What Ways Are Spiders Intelligent?

The ability to perform simple cognitive functions does not appear to depend on the vertebrate brain as such

This year saw a huge uproar in science media over claims that prominent researcher of spider behavior Jonathan Pruitt, a behavioral ecologist currently at McMaster University in Canada, had fabricated evidence of complex, seemingly intelligent behavior in spiders. After many colleagues recently raised concerns in blogs and tweets that behavioral ecologist Jonathan Pruitt had fabricated the data behind a slew of provocative results regarding animal personalities and social spiders, he denied the charges, saying any problems were inadvertent mistakes. Elizabeth Pennisi, “Embattled spider biologist seeks to delay additional retractions of problematic papers” at Science (March 12, 2020) Some of Pruitt’s data management mistakes seem rather curious: More than 20 scientists — co-authors, peers and other interested observers in the field…

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Antibiotic resistant bacteria inside a biofilm, 3D illustration. Biofilm is a community of bacteria where they aquire antibiotic resistance and communicate with each other by quorum sensing molecules

In What Ways Are Bacteria Intelligent?

As antibiotic resistance grows, researchers are discovering that these microbes are not just single, simple cells

Recently, Princeton University physicist Robert Austin challenged his graduate student Trung Phan to design a maze that he (Austin) couldn’t solve: Austin, Phan discovered, tended to retrace his steps when he encountered a dead end. So Tran decided on a maze without dead ends. The true purpose of the experiment, as Sophia Chen recounts at Wired, was to design a maze that bacteria can solve with remarkable skill based on their colony organization which, if you like, stands in for a brain: Curiously, bacteria—single-celled organisms that are among the simplest living things—are well known for working together, creating problem-solving units that are more than the sum of their parts. For example, to protect themselves from your immune system, the bacteria…

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Dog playing the shell game with her human. Concept of training pets, domestic dogs being smart and educated

In What Ways Are Dogs Intelligent?

There is no human counterpart to some types of dog intelligence

At Gizmodo recently, George Dvorsky adopted the useful, though somewhat unusual, strategy of determining dog intelligence by focusing on what dogs can’t do. He starts with the premise, as put by University of Exeter psychology professor (and dog expert) Stephen Lea, who says that domestication “has radically altered the intelligence of dogs.” Not so much raised or lowered it as changed its nature from the type of intelligence we would expect from a wolf: “Dogs are very good at what they’re bred to do — they’re excellent at doing those things, and in some cases even better than other species we think are intelligent, such as chimps and bonobos,” Zachary Silver, a PhD student from the Comparative Cognitive Lab at…

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Candy stripe flatworm

How Can Life Forms Show Intelligence With No Brain?

A Wall Street Journal piece points to the flatworm as an example

At the Wall Street Journal this weekend, Alison Gopnik a developmental psychologist and author of a number of books on child and infant learning, pointed to the learning skills of life forms without a brain and offers some insights: It might seem obvious that you need a brain to be intelligent, but a new area of research called “basal cognition” explores whether there are kinds of intelligence that don’t require neurons and synapses. Alison Gopnik, “Learning Without a Brain” at Wall Street Journal (July 26, 2020) If we look at the behavior of slime molds and the blob at the Paris Zoo, it’s not at all obvious that a life form needs a brain to be “intelligent.” Not if all…

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Black Chimpanzee Mammal Ape

But, in the End, Did the Chimpanzee Really Talk?

A recent article in the Smithsonian Magazine sheds light on the motivations behind the need to see bonobos as something like an oppressed people, rather than apes in need of protection

Recently, Michael Egnor commented on radical primatologist Sue Savage-Rumbaugh’s effort to level the playing field between humans and bonobos by including the latter as authors of a research paper on animal welfare: “Non-human animals don’t have abstract knowledge-making and practices that would allow them to be meaningfully consulted. It is reality, not anthropocentric bias, that has left animals out of this decision-making process.” There is a larger and very interesting story around that paper, recently relayed at Smithsonian Magazine by Lindsay Stern (right), a PhD candidate in comparative literature at Yale and author of a novel, The Study of Animal Languages. Her article tells us a good deal about the motivations of those who, essentially, see bonobos not as apes…

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Paradigm of Quantum Wave

At Nautilus: Electrons DO have a “rudimentary mind”

Panpsychists in science believe that nature is all there is but, they say, it includes consciousness as a fundamental fact of nature

A leading theory of consciousness, Integrated Information Theory (IIT) proposed by University of Wisconsin neuroscientist Giulio Tononi and championed by by another leading neuroscientist, Christof Koch, has clear panpsychist affiliations. It is favored by proponents of the idea that electrons are conscious. Whoa!, you say. How can electrons be conscious? Wouldn’t they at least need a brain to be conscious? Let’s hear an explanation from proponent Tam Hunt (right) at Nautilus: You might see the rise of panpsychism as part of a Copernican trend—the idea that we’re not special. The Earth is not the center of the universe. Humans are not a treasured creation, or even the pinnacle of evolution. So why should we think that creatures with brains, like…

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Groupe de Bonobos autour d'un hôtel à insectes

Can Animal Minds Rival Humans Under the Right Circumstances?

Are we just not being fair to animals, as some researchers think?

In 2007, Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, a psychologist and primatologist , published a paper in the Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science with a remarkable citation: Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, Kanzi Wamba, Panbanisha Wamba, and Nyota Wamba, “Welfare of Apes in Captive Environments: Comments on, and by, a Specific Group of Apes,” Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science 10:1 (2007): 7–19. What is remarkable about the paper is not the text but the authorship statement. Kanzi, Panbanisha, and Nyota Wamba are not co-author colleagues—they’re apes, bonobos to be specific. Dr. Savage-Rumbaugh (right) is a controversial scientist who believes that animals have intellectual powers that can, under the right circumstances, rival the human intellect. She included her ape subjects as co-authors on the paper because…

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brown monkey macro photography

Do Animals Truly Grieve When Other Animals Die?

Yes, but “death” is, in some ways, an abstraction so there are only some things they understand about it

Anthropologist Barbara J. King, author of How Animals Grieve (2014), has written a thought-provoking essay on the difficulties that COVID-19 has created for people coping with the death of a loved one because they are not allowed conventional grieving methods. Although it is titled “Animal Grief Shows We Aren’t Meant to Die Alone,” King’s essay turns out to be appropriately skeptical of ambitious claims about animal grief. She writes, There is a popular perception that some animals, particularly elephants and crows, participate in their own kinds of funerals. But there’s little solid evidence—at least, so far—for this kind of community ritual. Elephants may occasionally cover a dead companion’s body with leaves or branches, but the meaning and intent of this…

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Father And Young Son Reading Book Together At Home

Fatherhood Is Not “Subpersonal”

Human fathers care (but gorillas don’t) because fatherhood depends on explicitly human ideas

Why do men see themselves as “fathers” but male gorillas don’t? Proposed answers from evolutionary psychology are hopelessly inadequate.

Read More ›