Intelligent assumptions? At the Oxford Union, 1950. From the Picture Post feature, Eternal Oxford. Photo by John Chillingworth/Getty
Intelligence has always been used as fig-leaf to justify domination and destruction. No wonder we fear super-smart robots
As I was growing up in England in the latter half of the 20th century, the concept of intelligence loomed large. It was aspired to, debated and – most important of all – measured. At the age of 11, tens of thousands of us all around the country were ushered into desk-lined halls to take an IQ test known as the 11-Plus. The results of those few short hours would determine who would go to grammar school, to be prepared for university and the professions; who was destined for technical school and thence skilled work; and who would head to secondary modern school, to be drilled in the basics then sent out to a life of low-status manual labour.
The idea that intelligence could be quantified, like blood pressure or shoe size, was barely a century old when I took the test that would decide my place in the world. But the notion that intelligence could determine one’s station in life was already much older. It runs like a red thread through Western thought, from the philosophy of Plato to the policies of UK prime minister Theresa May. To say that someone is or is not intelligent has never been merely a comment on their mental faculties. It is always also a judgment on what they are permitted to do. Intelligence, in other words, is political.
Sometimes, this sort of ranking is sensible: we want doctors, engineers and rulers who are not stupid. But it has a dark side. As well as determining what a person can do, their intelligence – or putative lack of it – has been used to decide what others can do to them. Throughout Western history, those deemed less intelligent have, as a consequence of that judgment, been colonised, enslaved, sterilised and murdered (and indeed eaten, if we include non-human animals in our reckoning).
It’s an old, indeed an ancient, story. But the problem has taken an interesting 21st-century twist with the rise of Artificial Intelligence (AI). In recent years, the progress being made in AI research has picked up significantly, and many experts believe that these breakthroughs will soon lead to more. Pundits are by turn terrified and excited, sprinkling their Twitter feeds with Terminator references. To understand why we care and what we fear, we must understand intelligence as a political concept – and, in particular, its long history as a rationale for domination.
The term ‘intelligence’ itself has never been popular with English-language philosophers. Nor does it have a direct translation into German or ancient Greek, two of the other great languages in the Western philosophical tradition. But that doesn’t mean philosophers weren’t interested in it. Indeed, they were obsessed with it, or more precisely a part of it: reason or rationality. The term ‘intelligence’ managed to eclipse its more old-fashioned relative in popular and political discourse only with the rise of the relatively new-fangled discipline of psychology, which claimed intelligence for itself. Although today many scholars advocate a much broader understanding of intelligence, reason remains a core part of it. So when I talk about the role that intelligence has played historically, I mean to include this forebear.
The story of intelligence begins with Plato. In all his writings, he ascribes a very high value to thinking, declaring (through the mouth of Socrates) that the unexamined life is not worth living. Plato emerged from a world steeped in myth and mysticism to claim something new: that the truth about reality could be established through reason, or what we might consider today to be the application of intelligence. This led him to conclude, in The Republic, that the ideal ruler is ‘the philosopher king’, as only a philosopher can work out the proper order of things. And so he launched the idea that the cleverest should rule over the rest – an intellectual meritocracy.
This idea was revolutionary at the time. Athens had already experimented with democracy, the rule of the people – but to count as one of those ‘people’ you just had to be a male citizen, not necessarily intelligent. Elsewhere, the governing classes were made up of inherited elites (aristocracy), or by those who believed they had received divine instruction (theocracy), or simply by the strongest (tyranny)…