Do Words Like Smart & Intelligent Really Describe Our Machines?

Craig Axford
8 min readApr 11, 2018
Photo by Andy Kelly on Unsplash

That my phone can do things no other machine in the history of the world could do until very recently is beyond dispute. But is the word smart just something a clever marketer came up with, or is it an accurate description of what my phone really is? The same question can be asked about the use of the word intelligence, a quality increasingly being attributed to machines these days.

While no reasonable person would argue that there are things our technology can do better and faster than humans, these tend to be computational or highly repetitive tasks that machines can be programmed to do relatively easily. Even before the invention of the computer, industry had greatly enhanced productivity through the use of technology capable of performing the same task over and over again at greatly enhanced speed. A locomotive can run much faster and for far longer than a human, but we don’t refer to it as though it possessed some sort of embodied intelligence. Regardless, that we don’t need to stick to tracks or the road leaves us with a distinct advantage, our relative slowness not withstanding.

Intelligence is a word that’s actually pretty difficult to pin down. There’s general intelligence, commonly referred to simply as g, which we use the standardized IQ test to measure. However, in 1983 the developmental psychologist David Gardiner theorized that we actually possess eight different kinds of intelligence, only some of which can be adequately measured via something like an IQ test. He’s since suggested adding a ninth and tenth: existential and moral intelligence. This theory of multiple intelligences has moved into the mainstream of psychological thinking, making it that much more difficult to quantify exactly how intelligent any one of us actually is in the process.

Developmental Psychologist Howard Gardiner’s 9 types of intelligence. Originally Gardiner proposed eight types of intelligence. He’s since suggested existential and moral intelligence may also be worthy of consideration, though only existential intelligence is shown here.

The Encyclopedia Britannica defines “Human intelligence” as the “mental quality that consists of the abilities to learn from experience, adapt to new situations, understand and handle abstract concepts, and use knowledge to manipulate one’s environment.” This strikes me as a reasonably good working definition that does not exclude either g or…

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Craig Axford

M.A. in Environment and Management and undergraduate degrees in Anthropology & Environmental Studies. Living in Moab, Utah. A generalist, not a specialist.