The Sigil of Scoteia

At the Foresight congerence special-interest lunch on IQ tests for AI, Monica Anderson suggested a test involving separating text which had had spaces and punctuation removed, back into words.  As a somewhat whimsical version of the test, I suggested the Sigil of Scoteia:

The Sigil of Scoteia

In case you’re unfamiliar with it, it’s the frontispiece of the novel The Cream of the Jest by James Branch Cabell.  Why does the Sigil make a good AI test?

One reason is that it requires a considerably more holonic interpretation process than just separating the text would.  It’s in a handwritten script in an extremely idiosyncratic font — you need to have a good guess what the word is to figure out what the letters are, and vice versa.  Information must flow down as well as up the interpretation stack.  It takes a few minutes to figure out the Sigil; you can read the jammed-up letters version straight off:


(stumbling perhaps over the name of one of the characters near the middle).

But then, once you have the words, you’ve only gotten started.  The test isn’t “separate this into words” — it’s “what does this mean?”

You could work out the words but not be able to explain them in context. You might be able to tell what the Sigil was physically in the book but be completely clueless as to its emotional meaning.  I claim that the question “what does this mean?” has different answers at every point across the diahuman range of intelligence.  Cabell was an unexcelled master of cryptic, poetic, romantic fantasy, based on a very thorough knowledge of mythology and keen insight into human nature.  Think of him as Tolkein multiplied by James Joyce, filtered through the light touch of Wodehouse.

Thus actually to “get it” with Cabell, you have to be able to understand things on lots of different levels at once.

I often feel smug at the dumbness of people in the sense that surely AI must be a low bar — how hard could it be to beat that, whatever that might have happened to be.  But there are other times when, contemplating people like Cabell, I feel like giving up, it’s just too hard.

If you can work out the words in the Sigil, you’re at the hypo/diahuman border.  If you can write a book like Cream of the Jest, you’re at the dia/epihuman border.

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