Riff: Classifying Tools for Thought
Trying out a classification for "Tools for Thought" as a means of augmenting the human intellect, hot on the heels of recent community conversations about ChatGPT, CoPilot, Stable Diffusion etc...

At the risk of badly mangling things smarter people have probably already worked out 1 over seven plus decades and counting of the ongoing computer revolution 2, here goes.

Category One: Memory Assistant

I'd box all the note taking tools in here—as persistent store and/or organiser and/or search tools. As a user of such a tool, all meaning-making is the job of my brain. I must work out the known unknowns, deal with the unknown unknowns when they happen etc.

The tool functions like a mechanical memory + ontology + topology assist, which helps me do a lot of thinking + learning over long periods of time (like days, weeks, years). Things like Ken Iverson's concept of Notation as a Tool of Thought 3 would also fall into this category (filed under "methods to compress information into symbols and mnemonics and transmit them").

Hell, why be so fancy? I dump it all into my haphazardly organised org files and rgrep and its going… fine?


Category Two: Co-processor

Two intellects working together to arrive at a common model / picture / frame of understanding. People on the Internet and in my familiar circle of gentlenerds seem to be excited about CoPilot / ChatGPT etc. in this sense.

I can't help but see those as just more of Category One type tools. Why? Because co-processors must be capable of communicating understanding of abstract models with each other (a kind of "Communicating with Aliens" 4 problem). AFAIK, none of these tools are capable of explaining why they're doing what they're doing.

The one exception I could concede to is machines that are excellent at finite games. That too because odds are higher of being able to independently verify the machine's meta descriptions, and the outcomes would be reasonably reproducible (viz. "I did X, because of heuristic Y, and rules P, Q, R.").

Category Three: Teacher

One intelligence absorbing greater truths discovered by (or previously absorbed by) another intelligence. Where the other intelligence has the metacognition to know what they know, and to direct the other intelligence to that level of understanding. The magic of beings capable of transferring culture, stories, Laplace transforms, rate reaction equations, rules of grammar, interpretation of law etc. across minds, and generations.

I'm thinking tribes, coaches, mathematics circles, therapists, the Vulcan Science Academy and so forth… the ability to conjure up and communicate about concepts like communicating with aliens.

AFAIK, only biology is capable of producing this category of tools of thought.

In this context, I'm fascinated by the work being done on Bioelectric Networks by Michael Levin's group 5. Almost prosaically, in their work/world the definition of intelligence is a mechanical one. So much so that they are able to model and then produce (though not control or guarantee) biological structures capable of progressively more sophisticated kinds of intelligence in the mechanical terms they describe.

Which makes me wonder…

Is there something like the Kardashev Scale 6, but for levels/depths/spans of Intelligence?


  1. These two links capture the overarching context, discovered thanks to that fine Gentleman and Scholar, fogus.

    Overview of Intelligence Amplification. Intelligence amplification (IA) refers to the effective use of Information technology in augmenting human intelligence.

    Tools for Thought; an "an exercise in retrospective futurism" by Howard Rheingold, who introduced the idea as follows.

    Tools for Thought is an exercise in retrospective futurism; that is, I wrote it in the early 1980s, attempting to look at what the mid 1990s would be like. My odyssey started when I discovered Xerox PARC and Doug Engelbart and realized that all the journalists who had descended upon Silicon Valley were missing the real story. Yes, the tales of teenagers inventing new industries in their garages were good stories. But the idea of the personal computer did not spring full-blown from the mind of Steve Jobs. Indeed, the idea that people could use computers to amplify thought and communication, as tools for intellectual work and social activity, was not an invention of the mainstream computer industry nor orthodox computer science, nor even homebrew computerists. If it wasn't for people like J.C.R. Licklider, Doug Engelbart, Bob Taylor, Alan Kay, it wouldn't have happened. But their work was rooted in older, equally eccentric, equally visionary, work, so I went back to piece together how Boole and Babbage and Turing and von Neumann — especially von Neumann — created the foundations that the later toolbuilders stood upon to create the future we live in today. You can't understand where mind-amplifying technology is going unless you understand where it came from.

  2. The Real Computer Revolution Hasn't Happened Yet — Alan Kay, Viewpoints Research Institute. See also, video of the talk he delivered at OOPSLA, in 1997.↩︎

  3. Notation as a Tool of Thought, by Ken Iverson.

    The thesis of the present paper is that the advantages of executability and universality found in programming languages can be effectively combined, in a single coherent language, with the advantages offered by mathematical notation.

  4. The notion that fell out of JCR Licklider's thinking on how might we make an "Intergalactic Computer Network".

    Consider the situation in which several different centers are netted together, each center being highly individualistic and having its own special language and its own special way of doing things. Is it not desirable, or even necessary for all the centers to agree upon some language or, at least, upon some conventions for asking such questions as “What language do you speak?” At this extreme, the problem is essentially the one discussed by science fiction writers: “how do you get communications started among totally uncorrelated “sapient” beings?”

  5. Check out The Levin Lab at Tufts University, for some brain-melting science.

    We work at the intersection of developmental biology, computer science, and cognitive science. Our goal is to understand degrees of intelligence at multiple scales of biological, artificial, and hybrid systems; we use these insights to develop interventions in regenerative medicine.

  6. The Kardashev Scale "is a method of measuring a civilization's level of technological advancement based on the amount of energy it is able to use. The measure was proposed by Soviet astronomer Nikolai Kardashev in 1964."

    Michael Levin's group proposes this tantalizing modular model of cognition.

    Intelligence is not something that happened at the tail end of evolution, but was discovered towards the beginning, long before brains came on the scene.