MIT Faculty Newsletter  
Vol. XXX No. 4
March / April 2018
MIT Should Not Be Supporting
the Saud Monarchy
The Erosion of Social Norms Guiding
the Government-University Relationship
Improving the Urgent Care Experience
Through Student-Informed Care
Naming the MIT Intelligence Quest
Nuclear Weapons Education Project
MIT Students and Deep Learning:
Perspectives and Suggestions
MIT Day of Action
Higher Ed in the Era of #MeToo:
A Symposium for Faculty
and Graduate Students
Suicide and Sexual Harassment at MIT
MIT Research Expenditures 1940–2017
MIT Research Expenditures 1940–2017
Printable Version

Naming the MIT Intelligence Quest

Kenneth R. Manning

When I first read President Reif’s letter announcing the new MIT Intelligence Quest (MIT/IQ) initiative, I was impressed with its vision and potential, but distressed by the possible perception embedded in its logo. I promised myself to write a letter to the President and Provost regarding my concern about the logo, and about the need for caution in approaching the topic of intelligence. Unfortunately, I dropped the ball, perhaps because I was apprehensive about raising this concern with the project so far along. Now I regret that I did not write the letter.

During the discussion announcing the initiative at the February Institute faculty meeting, my disquiet increased when Professors Susan Silbey and Anne McCants took the podium to comment. So I decided to weigh in then and there, even though the project had gone public some weeks earlier.

As a graduate student over 45 years ago, I had organized protests on the use of IQ (Intelligence Quotient) tests to argue inferiority of blacks by Richard Herrnstein, Arthur Jensen, and others. Since coming to MIT in 1974, I have always taught the perils and negative ramifications of shoddy scholarship surrounding IQ and its eugenic uses, especially its espousal of racial inferiority.

I joined my friends and colleagues Stephen Jay Gould, then at Harvard, and Stephan Chorover, here at MIT, to challenge this so-called scholarship. Gould’s classic work, The Mismeasure of Man, should be required reading for colleagues as context for all research on intelligence.

For us at MIT, it is worth remembering too that Nobel Laureate William Shockley earned his doctorate here. After winning the Nobel, he went on to pursue spurious, ill-informed scholarship on IQ, outside his field of expertise (semiconductors). Even though our new initiative is future-oriented, our community must approach it with full knowledge and appreciation of past (and some present) abuses of scholarship surrounding human intelligence.

The unfortunate choice of the logo IQ was perhaps not simply a language slip. It suggests that the initiative would benefit from a greater diversity of faculty input, to help sensitize the community to quandaries that they have either internalized or of which they are entirely unaware. Some at MIT, especially in my two departments – STS (Science, Technology, and Society) and CMS/W (Comparative Media Studies/Writing) – are well suited for an active role in adding nuance and context to this important initiative. Having said that, I wish to caution that social, political, and ethical issues should be woven into the fabric of the project and not “outsourced” to any one group or person, say, the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences or its dean, as seemed to be the thrust of the faculty meeting. These issues are the responsibility of colleagues in the School of Engineering, equally if not more so. Indeed, they are the responsibility of everyone.

We should take this as an opportunity to reflect on the history underlying the complicated subject of human and artificial intelligence, particularly the ways in which it has been used for both positive and negative purposes.

We will then be in a better position to show how our approach at MIT is different, and how we can achieve the goals that we set. We will also be able to explain how the checkered notion of Intelligence Quotient differs fundamentally from our initiative known as Intelligence Quest.

The proverb “If wishes were horses, then beggars would ride,” comes to mind in response to the hope expressed in February’s meeting for faculty to get involved voluntarily. We should not take that chance. This initiative is so innovative, with such remarkable potential, that proactive grassroots efforts are required to ground it in responsible social values.

The Provost, the Chair of the Faculty, and a representative from the Office of the Dean of Engineering responded swiftly to concerns raised at the February faculty meeting, and to the call to action, through further discussion among themselves and with other faculty members. Many now share these concerns and want to change the logo so as to disassociate it from historical abuses tied to the acronym IQ. The challenge, as I understand it, is how to make the change with least disruption. Alternatives are being floated for consideration. Though the logo naming is likely to be solved with persistent follow-through, we must continue to frame and articulate a responsible vision for this pioneering initiative, given the regressive social, cultural, and political agendas that have emerged – and continue to emerge – around such research. In our probe for intelligence, we must exercise vigilance to preserve scientific integrity throughout.

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