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In Context #1 (Spring, 1999, pp. 16-19); copyright 1999 by The Nature Institute

Programming the Universe: Are Animals Robots?
Stephen L. Talbott

Artificial intelligence researchers are fond of creating little robots that scurry around on the floor and possess - or will soon possess, so we are assured—the wit of an insect. The assumption, often made explicit, is that with each technical advance the intelligence of these devices will ascend another step of the evolutionary ladder, finally approaching the mental cleverness and versatility of man.

But this gets things exactly backward. The truth of the matter is that it is much easier to program human intelligence—or, at least, certain aspects of it—than to program anything at all of an insect's intelligence. After all, we're the ones who have invented computers. Clearly we can learn to pattern our thinking in step with the mechanisms of a computer; we do this every time we write a program—and therefore the computer so programmed is patterned after our thinking. The execution of a computer program must reproduce our thinking in some sense. But it's quite a different matter with the beetle, who is presumably a long way from being able to hire on as a software engineer.

What artificial intelligenc