Learning from Meerkats, and from the World Around Us

Learning from Meerkats, and from the World Around Us

Updated from an original future of work blog post dated 7/27/2006

The November 2000, Religious Diversity Faire at UC Irvine, focused on the impact conscience computers would have on our belief systems. I spoke about a future where computers finally reach their artificial intelligence potential and achieve sentience. My bottom-line was this: the question is unimportant right now. We have, I said (and would still say,) bigger issues to deal with. It has become clear that Bonobos, Chimpanzees and other great apes, not to mention elephants (Elephant Voices, Elephants learn from others) and crows (Wired, Clever Crows Use Tools in New Way), demonstrate self-awareness and culture. We need to look, not into a future of sentient computers, at the creatures that share the planet with us today. We need to learn how to treat the creates that already co-exist with us morally, and respectfully, before we confer those honors on silicon and wires.

And our learning continues. Meerkats coach their pups how to hunt (Science News, Live Prey for Dummies: Meerkats coach pups on hunting). And on Seattle’s NPR station KUOW, they present information about learning in the Octopus (Tales of the Sensuous Seas).

My position remains the same. We are not good shepherds of our earth. We pride ourselves on our intelligence and our ability to learn, yet we treat others on the planet that exhibit various degrees of cognitive capability with contempt. We don’t even know what whales say to each other, but their songs evolve, and that must mean some type of learning. We teach classes on organizational learning. We talk about knowledge management. Yet all around us we fail to learn because we don’t tune in. We ravage the planet, and not only don’t we learn, but we make it increasingly difficult for other creatures of intelligence to compete with our insatiable need to transform the planet. And in the process of ignoring the context Earth creates, we erase the data, from trees and shrubs, from insects and monkeys, from bacteria and fungus, that could teach us just by existing. Many of our current problems arise from our arrogance of invention. It’s time to globally and consciously learn about what exists, and integrate the creators of that knowledge into our world view with the value it, they deserve. Meerkats can perhaps teach us about the origins of learning. And through that learning, we will be able to teach our children better. We should make sure we share with them the source of our wisdom.

In the heady, early days of artificial intelligence, I would often ask people to flip a light switch and tell me the rules they invoked to conjure that act. They, of course, didn’t know. Young children do think about turning on a switch, but as they mature, the neural pathways become so well-traveled, they lose awareness of the rules that underpin the action. As a species, we have forgotten how to connect to the learning our world offers, and that willful ignorance puts us all into jeopardy.

Image: adrian_mark_smith via flickr, some rights reserved

Daniel W. Rasmus

Daniel W. Rasmus, Founder and Principal Analyst of Serious Insights, is an internationally recognized speaker on the future of work and education. He is the author of several books, including Listening to the Future and Management by Design.

1 Comment found

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    Terry Schmidt

    Well said. I resonated with the line about “they lose awareness of the rules that underpin the action”. There is always a need to look under the hood, to probe the assumptions and organizing premises of our organization’s systems and processes, lest they become calcified. I recently consulted with a large organization whose strategic planning process consisted of two day quarterly offsites attended by the senior leadership team. They had done this for 10 years and were very proud. But they had no written strategic plan, nor did they keep meeting notes, assign action items, and follow up on previous commitment. Their process had degenerated into a ritual, losing sight of the original intention and the rules that should guide effective strategic planning.

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