Manipulation and Intelligence

April 10, 2019 § 2 Comments

In many realms of science, people place a significant emphasis on what we consider to be “intelligent life.” We use our definition of what counts as “intelligence” when we allow the use of insects and animals in the laboratory; we brush off ethical concerns, often on the basis that these organisms are not close enough to us evolutionarily, or that they are not intelligent life forms, thus justifying our cruel use of them to serve our own ends.

We also use our idea of “intelligence” in our search for extraterrestrial life. If we find prokaryotes or bacteria on another plant, we probably won’t herald them as aliens, or view them as threatening competition. However, if we find life we deem “intelligent” (i.e. like the heptapods in “Arrival” who were able to travel to earth and had a form of written communication), the headlines would be everywhere.

Defining what “intelligence” means allow us to accept or dismiss other life forms, and gauge their impact on humans. In Alex Garland’s movie “Ex Machina,” AI experimenter Nathan decides that Ava is truly intelligent after she successfully convinces Caleb into thinking that she likes him, and earns his affections in return. To Nathan, Ava’s ability to manipulate Caleb emotionally qualifies her as being truly intelligent.

So, is the ability to manipulate a fair measurement of whether one is intelligent? Perhaps it is. Throughout human history, we have learned to successfully manipulate landscapes, chemicals, genes, crops, animals, and yes, other people, in order to survive and thrive. Many human triumphs, such as a more comfortable standard of living (for some), the efficient production of material goods, etc. are the result of successful manipulation. We manipulate the economy, each other (hello politics), and the law (i.e. loopholes), among other things, through institutions we have created.

Jennifer Egan’s short story “Black Box” also emphasizes the role of manipulation. The narrator is able to hide under the gullible and giggly stereotype of a Beauty, allowing her to successfully manipulate her Designated Mate in order to gain access to valuable information. In this story, the narrator’s ability to manipulate is perhaps one of the main qualities that differentiates her from the other Beauties who she implies lack a certain degree of intelligence.

In Fredric Brown’s short story “Arena,” Carson wins a one-on-one battle against an alien life form by manipulating the barrier that separates them. Carson realizes that unconscious living organisms can pass through the barrier. He then proceeds to knock himself out so he can reach the alien on the other side and win the battle before he dies of thirst and his injuries. The alien did not figure this out, which resulted in the destruction of its entire species. In this story, one can argue that humans were the “intelligent” species and deserved to win, because Carson was able to successfully manipulate the barrier and end the battle.

On the other hand, in Ray Bradbury’s “Mars is Heaven,” the Martians are the intelligent species. The Martians are able to successful manipulate the humans into thinking that they are their dead relatives and friends. By employing strategic emotional manipulation, the Martians are able to kill off the human settlers.

It’s interesting to see how many science fiction stories zeroed in on the ability to manipulate as one definition of “intelligence.” Being able to manipulate is closely connected with the ability to think independently and creatively, so perhaps sci-fi really hit the head on the nail with this definition of intelligence.

~Rachel Wei

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§ 2 Responses to Manipulation and Intelligence

  • makbookpro30 says:

    Seems like your discussion would benefit from a consideration of the Turing Test. ( It’s mentioned in Ex Machina, but has become a kind of standard for artificial intelligence – if half of people are convinced that something made by AI was made by a human, it passes.) Some AI creations have already passed this test – a couple of poems have been “written” by AI. That’s important in an understanding of intelligence, and lends itself to some problems when it comes to human manipulation – after all, the test relies on convincing humans, a very difficult thing to define.


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