Brain Building - Q1. Define Intelligence

As you may find if you dig around the forum, this has been the source of much debate. To save you some searching you can see some of that on this thread - with my two cents worth starting here:

1 Like

This is really a very good topic. The definition of intelligence is very important. I have not seen a concise and persuasive definition in the forum so far.

If you have an accurate definition, you will have a correct theoretical framework.

1 Like


Thanks for the comment re Emotion.

My objective of this post is trying to get the laundry list to the very bottom without falling into the same fate as the European Human Brain project. So the question is Emotion part of the fundamental elements of intelligence. I think the key phrase you stated matches exactly how I understand emotion: “He was otherwise of normal intelligence”. My interpretation is without emotion, Elliot was still considered with normal intelligence. That tells me emotion might be an element of a smarter intelligence but not a fundamental element of intelligence. And by judging our daily examples like stock market and election and many other things, emotion often prevents us from thinking logically which also tells me that emotion cannot be part of the fundamental list. It will allow a species to survive longer (running away from predators, stay away from danger, pleasure to have sex to product offsprings, etc), but I don’t believe it is part of the most fundamental elements of intelligence.

The link @rhyolight Matt sent me Jeff Hawkins On Defining Intelligence I believe Jeff also thinks emotion is not part of the fundamental list either.

Let me know your thought on this. Thanks!


I definitely try very hard not to have my background to form bias towards my understanding (but it is very hard).

I think maybe my wording on using “perceive” is wrong but as a newbie I do not know what word to use to describe the trigger point of intelligence such as photoreceptor or “awareness”. Let me know if you have a better word for this.

As for your statement:

I am not trying to emphasize on the “how”, I just want to identify what is the fundamental list of the definition of intelligence. What does the simulator have to achieve in order to have intelligence? So for example, if the simulator cannot memorize information, does it have intelligence? if the simulator cannot perform prediction, does it have intelligence? if the simulator cannot derive new information, does it have intelligence? If the simulator cannot be angry or afraid, does it have intelligence?

And based on my limited understanding on the “how”, I think I agree with you on

but this is a much deeper topic which I will save it for later after I can really identify the fundamental list of elements for Intelligence.

It is a very important topic and I won’t move forward until I get everyone’s help to really nail down the most fundamental list of elements for intelligence. And really appreciate your help on this and please continue to critique (and I will do my counter) until we can have a very very fundamental framework to proceed with the work. Super thanks for the all the help so far!

1 Like

For copious laundry lists of features see the standard definitions:

To me, in a nutshell, “Perceive surroundings, learn behaviors, and select the best behavior based on the current perceptions.”

In a slightly longer form:

In all of the definitions I just offered above and referenced, some element of judgement is part of the definition of intelligence. You simply cannot make a decision without knowing if something is good or bad. Every experience that is encoded into memory is colored by some degree of emotion (something is good or bad) right along with the external perceptions. You can’t set this aside as some distant part of the brain; the emotion is baked right into the experience. It is a key part of common sense.

puts on amatuer philosopher hat, if there is such a thing

If you want do define intelligence, define what isocortex does

I like to think of isocortex as a database of sorts, where indices of data entries are sparse partial representations that invoke attractor dynamics throughout cortex, which are synced together because all things in the database were learned through joint sensory agency and interaction. Once stored, you can think of the isocortex as a simulation, where not only can you match external sensory perception to internal representations, but you can invoke internal representations at will. All representations are massively associative, so you can easily travel from concept to concept via “train of thought” associations.

You don’t have to be observing an apple to fire all the neurons that take part in representing “apple” in your cortex. You can just think “apple” and those neurons fire. You can invoke “apple” and place it in your visual field. You know how it feels in hand. You know how it tastes (are you salivating?). You can imagine in any way you like, anywhere you like.

We (Numenta) think this model in isocortex is a fundamental component of intelligence. It is the core of what makes us Human. It supports complex object modeling, language, societal constructs, etc. It enabled our civilizations to emerge. This is the type of intelligence we at Numenta are trying to understand and replicate in software. We are fairly certain that the models in isocortex are built with location in space at the core of the model. This extends a mechanism that evolution created to help critters* survive (navigate through world to find food / avoid death).

Yes, there is something else driving attention, no the isocortex is not isolated, it is highly connected to the rest of the central nervous system, but this model has a central circuit based on the representation of space at its core and it’s how we map all our abstract thoughts and constructions. Isocortex is not the only thing required to construct a useful intelligent agent, but it is necessary to replicate its function to construct a useful intelligent agent.

It is crucial to understand how isocortex works if you want to understand intelligence. That’s why we keep studying it.

* Yes I’m hijacking your word @Bitking because it works and it’s cute


I think a fairly obvious way to show location is fundamental is to realise that perceptional information only makes sense in relation to other information. This relation is the frame of reference.

The fact that so much hardware in the isocortex seems to be dedicated to produce this frame of reference (grid cells - displacement cells), tends to confirm this.

If such (unfortunate) person has any senses (hearing, touch), then there is hardly any doubt a location framework will be produced to structure all those inputs.

I’ve heard about this a few times in research meetings. Can someone explain this in layman’s terms? Is it related to the mathematical attractor?


The next Numenta On Intelligence Podcast will feature @FFiebig, and we will talk at length on this topic.

1 Like

I agree place is important. In evolution place is one of the first things an organism needs to be aware of and control. Also time. If I am a one celled organism I need to know where is the best food at this time of day and where is safe at this time of day. High in the water column or low column or in the mid level.

I am surprised I have not seen reference to palaces of memory the mnemonic technique of placing things (even abstract things) in a particular room in a fixed layout palace one keeps in memory.

The modular nature of all physical objects is well suited to 3D place mapping. The dogs tail is at the opposite end from the head and so on.

He have talked about it, in the video I posted with Jeff above, and our blog and even in the upcoming interview with Florian I think we talk that and simple verbal mnemonic devices.

1 Like

If the world were flat cats would have knocked everything off.


I believe that “observing an apple” and “think apple” being distinguishable in this sentence highlights that they are perceived (and thus represented) in not exactly the same way (challenging the “all the neurons” assertion). They share some overlap in the neurons involved, but surely there are neurons which are unique to “observing an apple”, and which are not active during “think apple”, “say apple”, “hear apple”, etc. Even further, surely there are also differences between “apple” and “this apple”. All these should have varying ratios of overlapping to unique neurons involved.


From the wiki’s definition

Do you think we can at least conclude the following are part of the fundamental list of elements of intelligence?

  1. “the ability to perceive” => Perceiving Information
  2. “to retain it as knowledge” => Memorizing Information
  3. “to be applied towards adaptive behaviours” => Predicting Information
  4. “infer information” => Deriving Information
1 Like

I am not entirely sure about this. If we talk about higher degree of intelligence then I can agree to that. But if we are talking about basic intelligence such as when I look at a stop sign from various angles to determine if it is a stop sign, I don’t believe I need emotion. Don’t you agree?

Having said that

I believe you are right that one of the elements should be “Making Decision” which I think I have an idea how the brain makes decision but I won’t discuss the “how” in this posting and will leave it til later. I want to focus on coming up with the fundamental list of elements to define intelligence first.

I have my own understanding on this and my understanding matches what you just said. Except I am not really sure how we “can invoke internal representations at will” and what is the trigger mechanism. To me, that is a very miraculous mechanism how we “can invoke apple”.

So can we at least conclude what this model is:

  1. Perceiving Information => “joint sensory agency” and “invoke internal representations at will”
  2. Memorizing Information => “a database of sorts, where indices of data entries are sparse partial representations”
  3. De-memorizing Information => “a database of sorts, where indices of data entries are sparse partial representations”
  4. Predicting Information => “All representations are massively associative, so you can easily travel from concept to concept via “train of thought” associations”

Still not sure about location in space…

So for this unfortunate person since he/she has no limbs this person cannot touch. If just hearing, how does a location framework work? If it is about the left and right ears, what if one of the ears has hearing loss? Does this person still have intelligence? Would there still be hardly any doubt a location framework will be produced to structure all those inputs? And if a location framework is produced, is it just a model formed by the intelligence and not a fundamental element of intelligence?

I don’t necessary disagree location is important, but I am wondering if it is essential. Similar argument to emotion, I think it is important for high order intelligence, but I don’t think it is an essential element.

If place is important, does that mean the single cell organism has intelligence? And I am using my example on this again for the super unfortunate person born blind without limbs and unable to move his/her neck, would this person have location model? and is location model important to this person? And if not can we conclude this person does not have intelligence. Please let me know your thought on this. Thanks.

Agree on this.

Not sure if neurons actually represent the information or if the synapses do, but that would be something I would like to find out on a separate post.

Now do you think we can at least conclude that:

  1. Perceiving Information => “observing an apple” and “think apple”

is one of the fundamental list of elements in defining Intelligence?