In 2016 Professor Stephen Hawking predicted that computers can, in theory, emulate human intelligence — and exceed it. What does he, or indeed we, mean by intelligence? The Cambridge Dictionary defines intelligence as the ability to learn, understand, and make judgements or have opinions that are based on reason. Other respected dictionaries might describe the word as a capacity for learning, reasoning, understanding, and similar forms of mental activity; aptitude in grasping truths, relationships, facts, meanings, etc. (To discuss “secret” intelligence as gathered by GCHQ and the CIA would only complicate the original question and therefore will not feature in this article.)
The difference between knowledge and intelligence is key here. Knowledge is the collection of skills and information a person has acquired through experience. Intelligence is the ability to apply that knowledge.
Stephen Hawkins was undoubtedly intelligent but he was not always clever. He was renowned for being a particularly bad wheelchair driver. There is an apocryphal story of him running over Prince Charles’ shoes on one occasion and another when he crashed his chair sufficiently to break his hip. A magician can make a chosen card appear on the outside of a moving train window. That is clever but it is not necessarily intelligent. An intelligent researcher will eventually develop a simple diagnostic test for coronavirus and he may have the knowledge that his offside front tyre is seriously bald but to drive two hundred miles on such a tyre is neither intelligent nor clever when he finds himself without a detectable pilse in the middle of a car wreck.
Clever is something completely different. Clever may seem like a compliment, but this adjective boasts a rather broad range of meanings — from “intelligent” and “imaginative” to “calculating” or “contrived.” Even the roots of the word clever, are unknown. It may be derived from Middle English (in the sense ‘quick to catch hold’, and only recorded in this period) or perhaps of Dutch or Low German origin, and related to cleave meaning to “cling to” or to split. The word clever is often more likely to be disparaging than complimentary considering phrases such as “Too clever by half”, “ Clever clogs” and “clever as a cartload of monkeys”.
Having said that there are times when being clever requires both knowledge and intelligence. If you have the knowledge that a particular length of railway track has been rendered useless by heavy weather, you could use your intelligence to take the train to the nearest staion to the blocked line having rung ahead and ordered a taxi to take you on to the next station beyond the obstruction and still get to your meeting on time. That would be both clever and intelligent.
Opinion is a completely different animal. Two highly-respected nutritional research scientists may have conflicting opinions regarding the benefits of red meat, dairy products and different types of fat. They both have knowledge, intelligence and put forward compellingly clever arguments but which one is right?
Did Stephen Hawking anticipate that computers will have opinions and base judgements on those opinions? If we still find ourselves in a quandary having listened to an authoritative figure, we can ask for a second opinion. If computers develop sufficient intelligence to have an opinion, can we ask the next computer for a second opinion on which our human brain can make a considered judgement?
Do emotions involve intelligence? Joy, sadness, grief, affection, fear, anger and trust ae just a few of the emotions we experience as sensate human beings but do they imply or require intelligence? The first four are simply feelings but fear and anger involve thought which implies intelligence and I find it difficult to imagine a computer or robot exhibiting fear.
I am averagely intelligent and yet I continue to make stupid mistakes. I certainly do not have even the smallest amount of knowledge contained within the covers of a small encyclopaedia. And while I have the clever dexterity to perform card tricks, I find it almost impossible to cut a piece of wood in a straight line using a handsaw.
While I believe that there is a distinct possibility of extra-terrestrial life, I cannot begin to imagine a computer exhibiting all the intelligence of our widely diverse humanity.
Despite the question that forms the title of this article, I would much rather ask whether you consider yourself to be kind. Kindness far outweighs any consideration of your intelligence, knowledge or cleverness.
Please be kind to all you meet.