If you are scaling a Himalayan peak, you’re going to need sherpas. Renowned for their hardiness, expertise, and experience at high altitudes, sherpas forge ahead of the climbing party, scouting routes and dangers and emplacing essential equipment and rations.

This month at SFI, a small team of intellectual sherpas will meet over two days to scout the path ahead for future Institute research. They’ll meet several more times this year, inviting in the experts needed to lay the groundwork for a robust research expedition starting in 2018.

The 2017 sherpa series is the first of a planned annual ritual intended to prepare for each successive year’s SFI-wide research theme. For 2018, that theme is the complexity of intelligence, both natural and artificial.

“From the sensing capabilities of single cells to the perceptual and decision-making abilities of large populations of neurons, a defining feature of complex systems is their ability to encode, store, process, and employ functional information,” says SFI President David Krakauer. “Intelligence is a property of the complex world, and in this small working group we are exploring the fascinating connections between natural and artificial intelligences.”

In both manifestations of intelligence, representation, storage, and inference are shared across organically and culturally evolved intelligent systems, from spider webs to the world wide web, he says.

The theme raises a number of interesting questions:

• What are the species-specific and species-spanning forms of intelligence?

• How should we think about natural perceptual, motor, and analytical intelligence?

• Is there a general intelligence that supports all of these functions, or is intelligence modular in a fundamental sense?

• Which features of organic intelligence and its modules lend themselves to object- and tool-based amplification and replacement?

• What novel forms of artificial intelligence can be derived from consideration of the full diversity of natural intelligences?

The sherpa meetings are designed to establish the research waypoints for later SFI working groups, pinpoint key challenges in the research space, and most important, identify experts with novel, intriguing, or radical ideas.

Krakauer and SFI Trustee Jim Rutt are coordinating the 2017 meetings with support from SFI Board Chair Emeritus Bill Miller’s Miller Omega Program and Rutt’s Proteus Foundation. Each sherpa meeting is small (around 10-15 participants each), informal (prepared talks are passionately discouraged), and lively (strong opinions are appreciated), Krakauer says.“Rather than being stunned to mental death by collisions with PowerPoint, this meeting is all about old-fashioned debating and its genuinely open-ended possibilities,” he says.

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