I'm fascinated by Lilly's cetacean intelligence/communication work, his isolation tank work, even his obsessive (and, apparently, excessive) experiments with ketamine injection leading to long conversations with various hallucinated (?) extraterrestrials ;-)
(I read his stuff a couple decades ago but I've been through a lot of experiences since, and I can read it with different eyes now. I remember how inspirational his book "Programming and Metaprogramming the Human Biocomputer" was for me, when I read it at age 13 or 15 or whatever.)
Anyway ... plenty of scientists by now have followed up Lilly's intuitions about the deep intelligence of dolphins and other cetaceans. A bunch of research papers by various scientists (not under the influence of ketamine ;-) are here:
For some relevant books by people less fringe-y than Lilly, but still quite insightful, see e.g.
As of now there is no definitive scientific proof that cetaceans are extraordinarily intelligent ... though there's pretty solid proof that they're at least as clever as great apes, I would say (though different in mentality) ...
However, my qualitative impression from reviewing all the evidence is that they are, in some senses, dramatically more intelligent than great apes
I will write something systematic on this topic at some point, when I get more time and have read the literature more thoroughly (obviously this is just a background interest for me, so my reading is going pretty slowly...)
What got me musing about this topic right now was thinking about how the naive physics of our everyday world has impacted human intelligence, and what this might mean for engineering and educating AGI.
Last month Allan Combs and I wrote a paper for the NASA CONTACT workshop, discussing how the radically different environments of extraterrestrials might impact their mind-states and varieties of intelligence:
(we'll academic-ize this and publish it somewhere, in time).
And this is also related to a paper I wrote a couple months back, musing about how the lack of fluids, powders, fabrics and other such substances in virtual worlds may impact their utility as homes for humanlike artificial minds:
(In that paper I also explored how it might be possible to enhance virtual worlds to largely remedy this shortcoming, using a special physics-engine technique I called "bead physics".)
In writing that NASA paper, I started wondering how it would impact a mind to evolve in an environment dominated by fluids rather than solids.
My speculation was that, in such a mind, notions of causing and building would be replaced by notions of flowing and shaping .... which would lead to all sorts of other differences.
Gino Yu then pointed out to me these fascinating speculations on the potential subjective experiences of cetaceans:
All this has spurred me to some of my own entertaining speculations (synthesizing various speculations of Lilly and others) ... to wit:
... what if (as Lilly speculated) the everyday states of mind of cetaceans are more like the states of mind that humans get into while on psychedelic drugs, than they are like our everyday consciousness?
After all, these creatures are breathing deeply and rhythmically ... they're floating in liquid ... generally they're living the sort of physical life that would put humans in a deep semi-meditative state ...
What if their big neocortices are devoted essentially to collaboratively composing and improvising music for each other to listen to?
... but perhaps something more advanced and subtle than human music, reflecting intricate patterns of social interaction, and holistic observations about the state of the underwater ecosystem, and emergences between these social and ecosystem patterns...
This would be a type of intelligence not focused on building tools or solving puzzles in the humanlike sense....
As with human intelligence, the main spur for the evolution of such intelligence would be social. Once the composition/improvisation of this kind of communicative/depictive music became a critical aspect of membership in cetacean society, then there would be evolutionary force to compose/improvise more and more appealing music....
In this hypothesis, the crux of dolphin communication might not be one-to-one conversation, but rather multi-player musical improvisation, with both spatial and temporal aspects. Dyadic conversation with practical import might occur, yet have vastly less complexity and subtlety than other aspects of the musical communication...
One interesting thing about this speculation is that, if it were true, it would mean that probing cetacean intelligence using concepts and methods developed for studying human intelligence, could push the researcher in badly wrong directions.
By analogy, imagine that a species whose main focus of intelligence was collaborative spatiotemporal music improvisation, tried to judge and explore human intelligence. Most humans would be judged as hopelessly moronic ... and then a few gifted musicians might be viewed as moderately intelligent. Due to the other species focusing on collaborative spatiotemporal music improvisation, they would miss what is really the crux of human intelligence: our dyadic linguistic communication, and our tool-building.
John Lilly wanted to probe cetacean communication with computer tech, back in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Computers are a lot better now, so someone could take a much better shot at it. But rather little research seems to be going on at the intersection of advanced AI pattern analysis and cetacean communication, at the moment. Too bad.
More ambitiously, one can envision creating an AI that shared both a humanlike body, and a dolphin-like body, and letting it exist in both worlds.
Lilly did make a good point, that we should probably take some of the $ we are spending on looking for alien lifeforms in space, and devote some of it instead to trying to communicate with these alien intelligences that apparently exist in our oceans. If we can't even communicate with the other intelligences on our own planet, cracking the codes of the minds and languages of beings on alien planets may not be realistic yet (though, of course, there is massive uncertainty in all these domains...).
There is some inordinately silly stuff written about cetacean intelligence -- I read one book on the theme that "Jesus was a dolphin"!! And Lilly certainly complicated his message about cetacean intelligence by mixing it up with some of his other messages, for instance about extraterrestrials whom he felt he contacted while in isolation tanks and on ketamine. But all that is really beside the point. When you look at the scope of existing qualitative evidence about cetacean intelligence, the picture is striking....
Whether the speculations I've made above are on-point or not, I'm convinced there is something very interesting going on in cetacean minds and societies -- which we are not putting nearly enough effort into understanding.
Instead, we are still killing them and making them into steaks.