Diverse20 Intelligences
Sep 14, 2023

What Happened at “the one meeting not to miss?”

Dozens of early-career researchers and academic superstars alike gathered to discuss and debate the nature of intelligence.

By Templeton Staff

Scholars in fields from animal behavior to artificial intelligence to theology gathered for the Diverse Intelligences Summit at St. Andrews University in Scotland recently. 

First held in 2018 as a meeting for grantees under TWCF’s Diverse Intelligences (DI) initiative, the DI Summit has grown into a unique conference for interdisciplinary discussion and collaboration. Our DI initiative aims to unite experts from various fields like neuroscience, philosophy, and computer science to foster collaboration and advance our understanding of intelligence in its diverse forms across animals, humans, and machines. This global, multiyear effort promotes open-minded inquiry to explore the multifaceted nature of intelligence.

“It can be very challenging to do this kind of transdisciplinary work, especially because it involves a certain degree of vulnerability,” says Jacob Foster, a Professor of Sociology at UCLA and External Professor at the Santa Fe Institute. “If I want to throw out an idea about neuroscience, I risk looking really foolish because I don’t remember which part of the brain is called what. But if a generous person is listening and willing to look past my lack of expertise in their field, they might realize I have a germ of an interesting idea.” 

Foster is a co-founder and co-director of the Diverse Intelligences Summer Institute (DISI), a three-week program for early-career researchers and artists to explore the nature of intelligence. Since 2019, Foster has overseen the DI Summit along with Erica Cartmill, a Professor of Anthropology and Psychology at UCLA. 

“We’ve had a lot of success with making sure DISI and the DI Summit have some overlap,” Cartmill says. “We see collaborations involving early-career grantees, and we see job offers. It’s an amazing opportunity for everyone.” Cartmill notes that in previous years, DISI and the DI Summit overlapped for one day of shared programming. This year, to allow DISI participants to integrate fully, the Summit took place immediately after the longer program, with participants invited to stay and participate in the conference in its entirety. 

As a result, dozens of early-career researchers and academic superstars alike gathered to discuss and debate the nature of intelligence. The range of presentations covered everything from dogs using buttons and soundboards to communicate to the use of cybernetics in experimental performance art. Several grantees presented work on the study of joy in humans and other animals. 

Neuroethologist Andrew Barron and philosophers Marta Halina and Colin Klein presented new findings from the TWCF-funded “Major Transitions in the Evolution of Cognition” project. Their recent study proposes a novel approach for comparing intelligences across different branches of the tree of life and beyond, with regard to robotics and artificial intelligence. The paper argues that the evolution of cognition is best explained by a series of major transitions rather than a gradual increase in cognitive complexity, with these transitions acting as "portals" marking significant shifts in information flow and the development of new abilities. You can hear more about their findings in this episode of the “Many Minds” podcast recorded live at the DI Summit

This is one of four TWCF grants focused on exploring frameworks for studying intelligence. Another, led by cognitive scientist Dora Biro of the University of Rochester, aims to determine whether collectives of organisms—such as schools of fish—can produce reasoning-like processes or rational outcomes not available to individuals. A team led by Tom Griffiths, a professor of psychology and computer science at Princeton University, hopes to develop a mathematical explanation for the diversity of intelligences observed in the natural world. Foster leads the fourth framework grant, which is all about understanding intelligence in complex systems as a property of how different parts work together to solve problems. 

Brie Linkenhoker, previously a professor of neuroscience at Stanford University and now founder of Worldview Studio, has helped organize efforts to magnify the impact of work from the DI Summit and its grantees. She notes that a gathering across so many different disciplines to explore a unifying topic is rare. “This year we heard someone say, ‘this is the one meeting I never want to miss,’” she says. “If all it did was bring people together from different fields to have this very mind opening experience, that would be awesome in and of itself.” 

But Linkenhoker is excited to see grantees and alums carry the unconventional ethos of the DI Summit over to new areas of research. For example, she says, several DI Summit participants are collaborating to seek an EU grant for the study of creativity. As is the case for the Diverse Intelligence initiative, they will allow for many definitions of creativity under the umbrella of their project. 

“They're going to use the same approaches and methods that DI has used, which means they're not going to jump into defining it,” Linkenhoker says. “They’re going to ask questions about what creativity looks like across many different species, as well as artificial intelligences. They're going to talk about how to recognize it, what its features might be, what its requirements might be. The DI experience has shaped their intellectual approach to a new question.”