In many domains, some animals have excellent performances, such as the hunting techniques of most carnivores, the care of a hen for its chickens, the way a cat manipulates its master, and so on. Moreover, sometimes they have exceptional sensory organs such as the sharp eyesight of the raptors, the smell of the dog, the ultrasonic receptors of the bat. Some also have extraordinary physical performance: the speed of cheetahs and dolphins, the flight of birds. Although we are often inferior to animals, man conquered the world, and drastically transformed it. Why did we succeed? The answer is evident: we are more intelligent. Nevertheless, it is interesting to find which aspects of our intelligence are important for our superiority, so that we could give them to the artificial beings that we create.
Naturally, in several domains, we are better than animals, particularly with our capacity to communicate using language. I will insist here on the capacity of our brain to work at two levels. For instance, when we are solving a problem, we can try to execute some of the allowed actions, but we can also temporarily go at an upper level, where we no longer execute the actions that could solve the problem, but we examine its definition. In that phase, we find which actions could be efficient, those which could be a waste of time; we can also define new rules, which will help us to solve the problem more easily.
Let us consider the following problem: a snail is climbing up a 15 meters high mast. Each day, it is climbing up 3 meters, and each night it comes back 2 meters. When will it be at the top of the mast? Many people, even if they are not very clever, will answer 15 days. Unfortunately, this is false, but they have taken an extraordinary step: to find this result, they have looked at the formulation of the problem, and they have created a new rule: each day, the snail gains one meter. If the mast was one billion meters high, using this rule would lead to a drastic improvement compared with the method where we consider what happens during one billion days. The error was made because the new rule is misused: one would have to apply it at the evening of the first day, and not at the morning. However, it is remarkable that most humans find evident to create new rules, not by experience, but simply from the formulation of the problem.
This upper level is called the meta-level. The preceding example shows that human beings easily work at this level, where one thinks about the problem before applying its rules. In many situations, it is useful to work at two levels, particularly when we are monitoring the search for the solution of a problem: we foresee what could happen, then, after an action is performed, we look whether everything takes place as foreseen.
We also have to consider two levels when we examine the behavior of other people (or of our self). At the lower level someone thinks, and at the upper level another person (or the same one) thinks about what the first individual does when he is thinking. Psychologists call “metacognition” the capacity of modeling the other people (and also oneself). For instance, it is important to know what span we are able to jump, and animals are good at that. It is also important to know that repetition is useful for memorizing a text, and only man knows that. Apes, and particularly chimpanzees, have models of other chimpanzees, and of the humans that they often meet. However, their performances are not at our level. Dogs have more limited abilities: a guide dog for the blinds is extraordinarily devoted to its master. Unfortunately, it cannot foresee that its master will be hurt when they are walking under a 1.5 meters high scaffolding: it has not the capacity to put itself into the skin of a 1.8 meters high man. Naturally, it will avoid this place in the future, but it cannot avoid the first failure.
Consciousness also uses two levels: it allows us to access a part of the processes that take place in our brain. It is helpful to understand why we have taken a wrong decision, and to share our knowledge with other people since we are able to know a part of what we are knowing. Thanks to that, the master can directly give out a lot of knowledge to his pupils, who are not restricted to try to imitate him.
Too often, the work at the meta-level is done by the researcher who creates an AI system. Therefore, this severely restricts its adaptation to unforeseen situations: everything must be anticipated by the researcher, who has also to define the response of the system when they happen. As long as AI systems do not work at the meta-level, their intelligence will be very limited. Essentially, the source of their performances is the human analysis of the possible accidents or setbacks. As a guide dog for the blinds, these artificial beings are often unable to take a good decision in unexpected situations.