Do you think there are things forever beyond our grasp?

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In summary, Kanzi the Bonobo has learned how to make fire with the help of human technology, and this has led to reflections on human evolution and intelligence. Humans are relatively poor at coming up with new ideas, but once those ideas are there, large numbers of people can expand on them. There may be concepts that some alien species has figured out that simply can't be taught to any human being.
  • #1
newjerseyrunner
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I read about a Bonobo named Kanzi today, who's learned how to make fire (with a little help from human technology) and I started thinking about our own evolution and wondering about the various levels of intelligence we had throughout.

I've always been interested in other primates and other intelligent animals in general and their relative intelligences. Koko the gorilla and Alex the parrot are really cool.

I also watched a documentary on the history of our own understanding of mathematics and how it evolved from the greek's word problem like world to the level we've taken it to now. It made me especially think about the fact that humans are terribly poor at coming up with new ideas but once those ideas are there, large numbers of people can expand on it. True genius and paradigm shifts were few and far between. And the difference between knowing math and understanding math.

I started wondering about much Kanzi could possibly understand. Not has the desire to understand or the attention span. Assuming an unlimited attention span, the desire to learn, and hell, an infinite amount of time, and the proper teaching methods, would there be a limit to her ability to understand abstract thoughts? I know all primates can do very simple pattern recognition, and abstract numeric thoughts. I'm fairly certain it could pick up addition and subtraction, and probably multiplication and division too. I think it could probably grasp that mathematical formulas can represent the physical world and I think she'd understand to some degree Newton's laws. But I don't think she could learn relativity or quantum physics. I think it's too weird and abstract.

Assuming that we omit the future possibilities of extending our intelligence with AI or genetic engineering, do you think there are concepts that some alien species has figured out that simply can't be taught to any human being no matter how intelligent? I'm positive that at least a handful of us could follow any mathematical formulas of any advanced laws that we don't currently know of, but that's not the same as actually understanding it.

I'm not talking about things we can't figure out because we can't test something, I'm talking purely about our ability to understand something.

Do you think we have limits, or is our mind flexible enough to adapt to learn anything given enough time? Thoughts?
 
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  • #2
I think only humans really have the capability to grasp mathematics at the level of algebra, trig, and calculus.

It is unclear to me where the limit of human thinking ability might be. Much higher than we usually see, I suppose.

Perhaps the developments in the past 500 years are an indication of what might be possible in the next 500.

That's pretty impressive.
 
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  • #3
Given that animals have clear limits I find it reasonable to believe humans do to. It seems unlikely that we've evolved to the point that our brains are theoretically capable of understanding anything given time. An interesting question is if we would be able to recognise a problem we can't understand.
 
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  • #4
Ryan_m_b said:
An interesting question is if we would be able to recognise a problem we can't understand.

You're not married, are you?
 
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  • #5
Ryan_m_b said:
Given that animals have clear limits I find it reasonable to believe humans do to. It seems unlikely that we've evolved to the point that our brains are theoretically capable of understanding anything given time. An interesting question is if we would be able to recognise a problem we can't understand.
That's a very interesting thought indeed. I can't quite answer that. I want to say that we'd be able to come up with the problem, but then again, if it's so abstract an beyond our understanding, would we even consider it a problem or is that just "how it is?"

Dr. Courtney said:
You're not married, are you?
As someone who's getting married in December, this is my favorite response on PF yet.
 
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  • #6
Lol no not married but appreciate the sentiment. Coming at this issue from another direction: it's actually very easy to think of things the human brain can't comprehend, at least at the first degree. Any system behind a very small number of interactions is virtually impossible to comprehend at once. For example: it's not possible to hold in your mind a dynamic metabolic reaction of several hundred different chemicals. But whilst that's a hard limitation we get round it through reductionism. Complex phenomenon are broken down into their components and sub components and we focus on learning them. Then after understanding those rules we gain insight into the larger system. This goes beyond individuals, a team of people each understanding a component of the system can be said to understand it at the collective level.

On that basis your question becomes is everything amenable to reduction?
 
  • #7
I once hypothesized that any system can only "understand" systems simpler than itself.

One might understand a simplified model of something more complex than oneself, but then one has only really understood the model.
 
  • #8
Ryan_m_b said:
Lol no not married but appreciate the sentiment. Coming at this issue from another direction: it's actually very easy to think of things the human brain can't comprehend, at least at the first degree. Any system behind a very small number of interactions is virtually impossible to comprehend at once. For example: it's not possible to hold in your mind a dynamic metabolic reaction of several hundred different chemicals. But whilst that's a hard limitation we get round it through reductionism. Complex phenomenon are broken down into their components and sub components and we focus on learning them. Then after understanding those rules we gain insight into the larger system. This goes beyond individuals, a team of people each understanding a component of the system can be said to understand it at the collective level.

On that basis your question becomes is everything amenable to reduction?
Basically yeah, your example is more a limitation on the human ability to remember than our ability to comprehend it. Not being able to keep track of something isn't the same as not being able to understand it. Each individual reaction can be calculated and the results extrapolated from there, we understand how to do that and why it works.

My question wasn't if you think there are things that can't be reduced, are there reductions that human being simply don't have the intellect to see, even if it were explained to us. If some being billions of years old came to you and described to you the laws of the universe as it knew them with it's eons of scientific method. We would have to learn it all gradually like children, but is there a point at which it would be like trying to explain relativity to an ant, or does our flexibility give us the ability to learn anything given enough time, previous knowledge, and experimentation with learning it?

I see no reason to believe that there aren't things beyond our grasp forever, not because it's not discoverable but because we lack the creativity to do it.
 
  • #9
newjerseyrunner said:
My question wasn't if you think there are things that can't be reduced, are there reductions that human being simply don't have the intellect to see, even if it were explained to us.

Looking over your posts I'd paraphrase your question as to one that seeks to identify the capacity of what the brain is able to achieve. Without having an exact mechanical (or quantum mechanical) model for how the brain works, then this is not possible to answer. But we certainly have limitations, no matter how smart we think we are. For example, we can't perceive 4 or 5 or 6 dimensions. That would seem to be a limiting factor due to our biology. But we can perceive 3 (spatial) dimensions. Why is that? That seems a limitation. And contrary to popular belief, non-human primates/ mammals do not have any confirmed capacity for any even rudimentary or "proto" grammatical construction or mathematical ability, even basic arithmetic. This is a long-running debate with many published studies, but no real progress has been made since the seminal article by Euan McPhail, so I refer you to that:

http://www.researchgate.net/publication/231885378_The_comparative_psychology_of_intelligence

As far as this statement:

newjerseyrunner said:
I think it could probably grasp that mathematical formulas can represent the physical world and I think she'd understand to some degree Newton's laws.

Do you really believe that? Do you think a chimp has a concept of what a mathematical formula is? Do you think that a chimp, or a dolphin, or an African grey parrot for that matter is able to understand what F=ma means?

newjerseyrunner said:
I see no reason to believe that there aren't things beyond our grasp forever, not because it's not discoverable but because we lack the creativity to do it.

We, as humans, have plenty of creativity, this is indeed what distinguishes us from all the animal life on the planet, but that doesn't mean that there are not things that are beyond our grasp forever. The sad truth is that, at the end of the day we are limited by our biology. But the good news is, though, is that we won't know what that limitation is because we don't have the capacity to understand it o0)
 
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  • #10
DiracPool said:
Do you really believe that? Do you think a chimp has a concept of what a mathematical formula is? Do you think that a chimp, or a dolphin, or an African grey parrot for that matter is able to understand what F=ma means?
I also object to that kind of characterization, as in a recent article someone posted saying babies understand Newton's 3 Laws. What babies and animals sometimes grasp is more like, "When I do this, it does that." That's very rudimentary compared to being able to understand the phenomenon can be described as quantities governed by a formula. Indeed, the instinctual ability to sharpen the "this" that one does to control the "that" that results, without putting any numbers to it at all, is quite remarkable, but it is a different activity altogether than the cerebral abstraction that is F=ma.
 
  • #11
A question that some of these posts seems to raise is: Might some animals be capable of understanding concepts which we humans cannot grasp? For instance, could it be that a microbe could develop ability to visualize five dimensions because this skill enhances its ability to survive?
 
  • #12
DiracPool said:
Do you really believe that? Do you think a chimp has a concept of what a mathematical formula is? Do you think that a chimp, or a dolphin, or an African grey parrot for that matter is able to understand what F=ma means?

can they understand the abstract meaning behind roman characters and mathematical symbols

obviously not
do (some) animal brains work in ways that allow them to process complex information to calculate and predict motion and forces of objects, the consequence of motion etc.

obviously yes

animals brains do very complex processing of physical "problems".there are lots of humans that have no concept of a mathematical formula or what F=ma is.
 
  • #13
William White said:
can they understand the abstract meaning behind roman characters and mathematical symbols

obviously not
do (some) animal brains work in ways that allow them to process complex information to calculate and predict motion and forces of objects, the consequence of motion etc.

obviously yes

animals brains do very complex processing of physical "problems".there are lots of humans that have no concept of a mathematical formula or what F=ma is.

I'm not sure exactly what you are trying to say here...
 
  • #14
Animal brains are carry out very complex 'calculations'
 
  • #15
William White said:
Animal brains are carry out very complex 'calculations'

Ah, ok, thanks. Well, the brain doesn't know a calculation from a hole in the ground or a supermassive galactic black hole. So it does no calculating. It's a chaotic system that is just falling on physical laws to generate particular patterns that drive behavior and thoughts. The word "calculating" is a human created term relating to the uniquely human task of writing down and performing operations on written characters that we've also created. The "complex processing" you attribute to human or any other mammalian brain is no more intentionally sophisticated or directed than the pattern of rivulets than run off a hill during a rainstorm. Everything is just following the path of least resistance.

As far as your comment, "there are lots of humans that have no concept of a mathematical formula or what F=ma is," I beg to differ with you. I think most people understand at least that 1+1=2 and 2x2=4, in whatever language they speak, and understand that this implies some sort of weighted equality. A non-human animal has no concept of that.

As far as what F=ma means, any non-organically compromised Homo sapien sapien has the capacity to understand what that means, given the time and the effort to learn it. A chimpanzee will never understand it, no matter how much time and training you give it.
 
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  • #16
zoobyshoe said:
I also object to that kind of characterization, as in a recent article someone posted saying babies understand Newton's 3 Laws. What babies and animals sometimes grasp is more like, "When I do this, it does that." That's very rudimentary compared to being able to understand the phenomenon can be described as quantities governed by a formula. Indeed, the instinctual ability to sharpen the "this" that one does to control the "that" that results, without putting any numbers to it at all, is quite remarkable, but it is a different activity altogether than the cerebral abstraction that is F=ma.
That is also important for Kanzi. He can make fire using human tools, yes - but does that count as some deeper understanding of the concept of fire, or is it just following procedures humans showed him? He certainly does not understand it at a level we humans do - chemical reactions between the wood and oxygen in their air and so on.
DiracPool said:
I think most people understand at least that 1+1=2 and 2x2=4, in whatever language they speak, and understand that this implies some sort of weighted equality.
Most, but http://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/unlocking-the-secret-sounds-of-language-life-without-time-or-numbers-477061.html.
 
  • #17
mfb said:
That is also important for Kanzi. He can make fire using human tools, yes - but does that count as some deeper understanding of the concept of fire, or is it just following procedures humans showed him? He certainly does not understand it at a level we humans do - chemical reactions between the wood and oxygen in their air and so on.
In fact, the majority of humans who make fire don't understand the chemical reactions. We know that people as mathematically sophisticated as the Greeks considered fire to be some kind of divine magic, stolen from the gods by Prometheus. The mere ability to learn "When I do this, it does that," can accomplish wonders way beyond our ability to understand what's happening.
 
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  • #18
zoobyshoe said:
In fact, the majority of humans who make fire don't understand the chemical reactions. We know that people as mathematically sophisticated as the Greeks considered fire to be some kind of divine magic, stolen from the gods by Prometheus. The mere ability to learn "When I do this, it does that," can accomplish wonders way beyond our ability to understand what's happening.

Same goes today: you ( most of the population) drive a car , watch t.v., fly in planes, surf the web, use cellphones , use electricity in genera,l without understanding how any of it works.
 
  • #19
zoobyshoe said:
In fact, the majority of humans who make fire don't understand the chemical reactions.
Sure, but there are humans that do. That's not my point. You can make fire with different levels of "understanding". Kanzi will not reach the level some humans reached.

My computer can show me millions of pages of text that contains a huge amount of knowledge - that does not mean the computer understands the text. It just repeats what humans wrote into it.
 
  • #20
mfb said:
Sure, but there are humans that do. That's not my point. You can make fire with different levels of "understanding". Kanzi will not reach the level some humans reached.
Agreed. If you were able to teach a chimp to count, could you teach it to add? If you could, could you teach it to subtract? To multiply and divide? Suppose you could. Could you then get it to understand that non-objects, things like forces, can be quantified? Could you teach it to quantify and measure acceleration? The more sophisticated the concept, the less likely it seems a chimp could grasp it.
 
  • #21
WWGD said:
Same goes today: you ( most of the population) drive a car , watch t.v., fly in planes, surf the web, use cellphones , use electricity in genera,l without understanding how any of it works.
I myself do this all the time. I'm pretty sure computers operate by magic of some sort.
 
  • #22
If you are deeply interested in the answer, take a course in Computability Theory. Prereqs usually include a few years of Calculus and some Computer Science courses, so you are unlikely to see many Psychology or Philosophy students there. :-(

The (very) short answer is that there are some answers that cannot be known. See Godel's Proof. For computations which are possible, there are various classes of difficulty which relate to the amount of (scratchpad) memory or the number of steps required to solve the problem. These classes are usually described in terms of the size of the problem description. For example, adding a list of numbers requires time proportional to the length of the list, and the memory required is proportional to the largest intermediate subtotal.

The third measure of difficulty, usually ignored in Computability Theory is the size of the algorithm required. Usually this is small compared to other memory requirements, but there are some algorithms that are pretty complex. (The proof of Fermat's Last Theorem for example.)
 
  • #23
eachus said:
If you are deeply interested in the answer, take a course in Computability Theory. Prereqs usually include a few years of Calculus and some Computer Science courses, so you are unlikely to see many Psychology or Philosophy students there. :-(

The (very) short answer is that there are some answers that cannot be known. See Godel's Proof. For computations which are possible, there are various classes of difficulty which relate to the amount of (scratchpad) memory or the number of steps required to solve the problem. These classes are usually described in terms of the size of the problem description. For example, adding a list of numbers requires time proportional to the length of the list, and the memory required is proportional to the largest intermediate subtotal.

The third measure of difficulty, usually ignored in Computability Theory is the size of the algorithm required. Usually this is small compared to other memory requirements, but there are some algorithms that are pretty complex. (The proof of Fermat's Last Theorem for example.)

Interestingly, though, there are programs (e.g., arcade games) with millions of lines of code, written by different people, that run in a relatively smooth way.
 
  • #24
It took decades to figure out how to make programming standards to allow many different components to interact as smoothly as they do today. And this is still work in progress - programs get more complicated all the time. Nice visualization (connected things are older and newer versions of the same software).

No one knows the whole code of a recent "large" operating system. Just reading 50 million lines of code would take years at a rate of a few seconds per line - and reading everything once is certainly not enough to know it afterwards. A team was still able to put it together, as the task could be split up enough to make the subtasks possible for humans.

Similarly, no one can think of every detail of a 500+ page proof in mathematics at once. But a few experts can understand it step by step.

Are there tasks that cannot get split up fine enough? That's the question.
 
  • #25
Here's a point the OP made that hasn't been addressed:
newjerseyrunner said:
I also watched a documentary on the history of our own understanding of mathematics and how it evolved from the greek's word problem like world to the level we've taken it to now. It made me especially think about the fact that humans are terribly poor at coming up with new ideas but once those ideas are there, large numbers of people can expand on it. True genius and paradigm shifts were few and far between.
We tend to collectively credit ourselves with abilities that are actually only possessed by the few. You'll hear people saying things to the effect that humans came up with the theory of relativity, and other similar accomplishments, when it was actually only one human among billions who did. We confuse the ability to understand a concept with the ability to arrive at the concept in the first place. So, the human race as a whole (and perhaps the bonobo race as well) is actually ultimately limited by the quality and quantity of its geniuses.
 
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  • #26
zoobyshoe said:
We tend to collectively credit ourselves with abilities that are actually only possessed by the few. You'll hear people saying things to the effect that humans came up with the theory of relativity, and other similar accomplishments, when it was actually only one human among billions who did. We confuse the ability to understand a concept with the ability to arrive at the concept in the first place. So, the human race as a whole (and perhaps the bonobo race as well) is actually ultimately limited by the quality and quantity of its geniuses.
If Einstein wouldn't have come up with the concept of relativity (special and general), someone else would have. Might have taken some years more, but it was just a matter of time. Like most discoveries, it was not the work of a single person - the Michelson-Morley experiment had been done, the Lorentz transformation existed already. Einstein put it together to a consistent framework and later generalized it to include gravity - with mathematical tools that existed before.
 
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  • #27
mfb said:
If Einstein wouldn't have come up with the concept of relativity (special and general), someone else would have. Might have taken some years more, but it was just a matter of time. Like most discoveries, it was not the work of a single person - the Michelson-Morley experiment had been done, the Lorentz transformation existed already. Einstein put it together to a consistent framework and later generalized it to include gravity - with mathematical tools that existed before.
But my point is: the percentage of people who could have conceived of SR (or any revolution in understanding) is extremely low. What percentage of the people alive at the time do Michelson, Morley, Lorentz, Einstein, (and Poincarre) represent? The percentage of people who can understand it, once it was arrived at, is vastly higher. Billions of people understand Newton's 3 Laws today, but between Aristotle and Newton (about 2000 years), no one arrived at all three and understood their importance.
 
  • #28
zoobyshoe said:
But my point is: the percentage of people who could have conceived of SR (or any revolution in understanding) is extremely low. What percentage of the people alive at the time do Michelson, Morley, Lorentz, Einstein, (and Poincarre) represent? The percentage of people who can understand it, once it was arrived at, is vastly higher. Billions of people understand Newton's 3 Laws today, but between Aristotle and Newton (about 2000 years), no one arrived at all three and understood their importance.

Right, George Soros and I are millionaires; we have an average net worth of $600 million. We are, as a whole, rich. ;) . I have heard it called " The Royal We".
 
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  • #29
With an estimated $24.2 billion for George Soros, that means $23 billion debts for you? ;)
zoobyshoe said:
But my point is: the percentage of people who could have conceived of SR (or any revolution in understanding) is extremely low.
Sure. Luckily, one is all we need.
 
  • #30
Ultimately I think our information society does play that role of "distributed computing" , where problems are dealt with by a lot of people simultaneously and often broken down into pieces that are more easily digestible than the original one. And sheer repetition to the same concepts, given the constant flow of information, helps the break down process at an individual level: after you have been exposed to the same idea 50 times, by either watching it on TV, listening to it on the radio, or through conversation/internet, seems to help the process of breaking the idea down. I think Steve Wolfram addressed this in his ANKOS book.
mfb said:
With an estimated $24.2 billion for George Soros, that means $23 billion debts for you? ;)
.

Student Loan$$
 
  • #31
what we can achieve - intellectually - depends upon the defintion of "we".

Evolution of humans by natural and sexual selection may, due to civilisation, society, medicine, technology, - for all intents and purposes - have stopped. The "fittest" human babies are not the only ones reaching reproduction age, as would have been the case hundreds of thousands of years ago when homo sapiens evolved. We have created a civilisation where the 'rules' of natural selection do not apply. Those having the most children are not necesarily the "fittest". There does not appear to be the pressure to select big brains capable of abstract problem like there was solving half a million years agoso what can "we" achieve.
1) IF humans evolve, and the evolution favours greater intellectual skills, who knows? evolution in future society may favour more vicious humans rather than thoughtful ones. But consider the intellectual difference between the great apes - between humans and chimps. What could an evolved human mind that is as far removed from us as we are from other apes acheive?

2) If humans do not evolve, but merge with technology, there could be as much difference between us and that future technology enhanced humanity as there is between us and other apes. Already, many complex systems - circuits for example - are designed and tested by the previous generation of machines.3) so it all depends on whether humans can survive long enough to achieve 'everything'. Its certainly a popular sci-fi scenario that sufficently evolved (either naturally or technologically) beings are indistuingushable from what we would consider gods.
 
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  • #32
WWGD said:
Interestingly, though, there are programs (e.g., arcade games) with millions of lines of code, written by different people, that run in a relatively smooth way.

If you do study computability theory, you will find out that there are total functions and partial functions. A total function will always return a (valid) answer when called with valid parameters. Where possible programmers try to write such code. But there are some problems where only partial functions are known. These will never return an answer in some cases. (In other words the computer will grind away forever, and not find a valid answer.)

It turns out that determining whether a function is complete or partial is itself a partial function. (See the Halting problem.) Good software engineers run their code against a theorem prover. Sometimes you want a program to not halt, say the main loop in avionics code for a fighter jet. So sometimes you want a function that always halts, other times you want to prove your program doesn't halt. It's the ones in the middle that shouldn't ship, but too often do.

If you want to see a software engineer run away gibbering, say that the theorem prover doesn't work on your program, it just sits there "doing nothing." Oh, and if you do need to create perfectly correct code, stay away from C, C++ and related languages. it is possible to write good code in C. The issue is that many library functions return either a pointer or a number (which is an error code). Aha! You think I'll provide a "wrapper" function which handles the error codes. But that wrapper will probably include longjumps which are even harder on the theorem prover. And anyway you really do want the theorem prover to "look inside" the library functions to prove that no errors will occur. How many malloc() calls are there in your code?
 
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  • #33
William White said:
3) so it all depends on whether humans can survive long enough to achieve 'everything'. Its certainly a popular sci-fi scenario that sufficently evolved (either naturally or technologically) beings are indistuingushable from what we would consider gods.
It is not limited to science fiction. If you could bring a modern computer (or similar devices) to the world of 1800 or earlier, you could easily convince the people that it is magic. Don't forget a power supply if the device does not run with batteries.
 
  • #34
mfb said:
Sure. Luckily, one is all we need.
Right, but we're limited to the abilities of that one.
 
  • #35
DiracPool said:
Ah, ok, thanks. Well, the brain doesn't know a calculation from a hole in the ground or a supermassive galactic black hole. So it does no calculating. It's a chaotic system that is just falling on physical laws to generate particular patterns that drive behavior and thoughts.

Well, I'm glad you have dsolved the great mystery of emergent behaviour.

You might like to think that a pack of wolves hunting is of a different order of brain operations as writing down on a piece of paper.

I disagree. Its the same thing - the brain making sense of the world and making complex predictions with a purpose - just at a different level.

DiracPool said:
I think most people understand at least that 1+1=2 and 2x2=4, in whatever language they speak, and understand that this implies some sort of weighted equality. A non-human animal has no concept of that.
Many animals can count.

DiracPool said:
As far as what F=ma means, any non-organically compromised Homo sapien sapien has the capacity to understand what that means, given the time and the effort to learn it. A chimpanzee will never understand it, no matter how much time and training you give it.

non-organically compromised? what does THAT mean? Why is it impossble to talk straight?

Do you mean learning disabilities?

There are plenty of humans with learning disabilities; plenty that are far less capable intellectually than a chimp. They are still humans. That is what I meant.
The descendents of chimpanzees might understand it in 500,000 years. The common mother of you and a chimp did not understand it either. Intelligence emerges. Its a scale and we are somewhere along it. All that distinguishes us from other animals is where we are on the scale.
 
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