The Intelligence is to Brains as Flight is to Birds Fallacy

We didn’t reverse engineer birds to create airplanes.  Instead we studied the mechanics of flight and used these principles to build wings and eventually 747s.  Likewise, we don’t need to reverse engineer the brain to create AI.  We ‘just’ need to understand the mechanics of intelligence and then we can build much faster and more powerful AIs.

Certainly there is some truth to this, as AI systems already soar beyond human capability in many specialized fields.  However, this is more of a natural outgrowth of computer science (focusing and sharpening human thinking into precise algorithms which are then sped up and amplified by many orders of magnitude) than general learning (the meta-algorithm underlying all others).

But back to the fallacy: the flaw with the flight analogy is it a priori assumes that intelligence is in any way remotely comparable to flight.  This meme works by employing a trick: something of a cognitive sleight of hand.  When you read X is to Y as Z is to W, your brain is so focused on finding the connection pattern between X to Y and how that maps to the Z to W case that you completely fail to notice if X and Z are similar at all.

If you are going to compare intelligence to flight, you might as well compare intelligence to electricity.  You could then imagine some early computer scientists saying “we don’t need to reverse engineer the brain to build complex computers, we just need to understand electricity!”  Going from mastering electricity to building today’s computers is a massive evolutionary leap, and going from simple Turing Machines with their simplified programming languages up to fully intelligent machines programmable in human languages is an even more massive leap up the complexity ladder.

Brains are far more like computers than intelligence is like flight.  Intelligence is nothing like flight (or electricity).  Intelligence is a high complexity phenomenon.

The other more basic problem with the analogy is that by definition, creating an artificial intelligence is like creating an entire artificial brain, because the sole singular purpose of the brain is as an organ of intelligence, and it is easily as complex as an entire small animal such as a bird.  So the analogy really should be ‘creating artificial birds with a complete artificial nano-tech biology’.

Airplanes are not artificial birds, they are enormously less power effecient, have zero intelligence, they do not auto-assemble out of organic waste, etc etc.  Airplanes are just tools to ferry people.  A real AI would not be just another tool to amplify human abilities, it would be a complete replacement for a human.  Thinking that a true AI would be a tool is a dangerous delusion.


2 thoughts on “The Intelligence is to Brains as Flight is to Birds Fallacy

  1. Pingback: Understanding the Brain: Where to Start « Enter the Singularity

  2. “we don’t need to reverse engineer the brain to build complex computers, we just need to understand electricity!”


    That and binary arithmetic and logic.

    It doesn’t take the full complexity of a bird to do flight. Most of the complexity of a bird is in other bodily functions. For that matter, the brain does many many things that have nothing to do with intelligence.

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