I took a single psych class in HS that I just barely passed, so the difference between intelligence and sentience is a little hazy to me. As best as I can understand it, intelligence is the means to understand your environment and use learned information to help make decisions. Sentience is the ability to contemplate your own existence.

Sentience seems to cause a lot of problems for humanity. We regularly resort to violence over trivial, abstract concepts and hinder our own progress as a species. We shoot ourselves in the foot a lot, is what I'm getting at. While it's gotten us farther than any other species on earth, and in the universe AFAIK, it wasn't without a lot of stumbles.

So, with enough time and evolutionary drive, would a highly intelligent species unburdened by consciousness be able to create advanced technology. Ants seem to be quite industrious. Bees create massive hive cities that put science-fiction to shame. I know this is all instinctual, but it happens.

Would a hive-mind species be the ideal form for technological development? Or would it be something more akin to a natural nanobot swarm?

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    $\begingroup$ I can see how this is a solid worldbuilding question. To boil down the many arguments, without sentience, an entity is incapable of improving their own existence, primarily because their existence as something separate from the outside world has never occurred to them. They could problem-solve, but not strategize. It could build, but not trade. Baring the totalitarian control of a hive mind, how could such a thing generate a society? $\endgroup$ Commented May 3 at 15:50
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    $\begingroup$ "I took a single psych class in HS" [...] "Sentience is the ability to contemplate your own existence": Most people would rather say that sentience is simply the ability to experience sensations consciously, with or without the ability experience emotions depending on country. Fish are sentient. As Wikipedia says, sentience is the simplest or most primitive form of cognition. Self-awareness is something else entirely. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Commented May 3 at 16:21
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    $\begingroup$ Look at Watts' Blindsight and related novels for a pretty thorough exploration of this question. $\endgroup$
    – addaon
    Commented May 3 at 16:32
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    $\begingroup$ "an entity is incapable of improving their own existence." What is this assumption based on? The whole point of the p-zombie thought experiment is that there's no way to tell, externally, whether a being is sentient or not, for most useful definitions of sentience. Therefore, there's no reason to expect the actions of p-zombies to be restricted to those that do not improve their own existence. $\endgroup$
    – addaon
    Commented May 3 at 16:44
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    $\begingroup$ "Sentience is the ability to contemplate your own existence." no, sentience means that you possess senses. A robot with a camera and a microphone is sentient even if entirely remote controlled (no "intelligence" that self-drives it). Homo Sapiens is named so because of sapience - capable of thought and understanding. $\endgroup$
    – VLAZ
    Commented May 4 at 17:34

5 Answers 5



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Well, to start, for what it’s worth, this question does seem a bit open-ended. You’re basically asking “what is the ideal society”, which humans have been arguing about pretty much since the start of recorded history. How do you define “ideal”? How do you define “society?” How do you define “the?”

So here’s an opinionated, cynical answer that you can either agree with, disagree with, or pretend not to have read, and you’ll still be “right”. (How do we define “right?”)

Ants have been around for 100 million years. 100x as long as humans have been, we think. They build massive fortresses, farm livestock, cultivate crops, and organise themselves according to a rigidly-defined caste system. They travel via well-defined routes that never experience traffic congestion, and collaborate to overcome threats dozens or even hundreds of times their size.

And they do this with brains half the size of a sand grain. enter image description here

And it’s not just ants. Termites build towers far larger, relative to the builders, than anything humans have constructed, out of their own spit and sh#t. Honeybees communicate the location of flowers by dancing. Even some cockroaches show signs of evolving a colonial, or “eusocial” society, so goodness knows what they’ll achieve in a few millennia.

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How do insects do this? Answer: they aren’t sentient. (according to how most people define sentience, anyway). They aren’t even intelligent. At least, on an individual level. They have evolved, over millions of years, to replicate intelligent behaviours; their pheromonal telegraph systems, their social structures, are all evolved behaviours that come as instinctively to them as blinking does to you; as a termite helps build her tower, no thought goes into how she is doing it. The knowledge is ingrained into her on such a fundamental level that she doesn’t even know she’s doing it.

Desert ants literally count the number of steps they take so they can find their way home.

Sure, humans are able to work out how to do these things with their massive, energy-hungry brains and then teach this to their offspring, and so we have managed to replicate intelligent behaviours in a fraction of the time it took ants to do so. But those same energy-hungry brains, controlled as they are by an abstract, emotional sentient mind, are also used to design weapons of mass destruction that could sterilise whole landmasses.

And then, because sentient minds are stupid, they build these weapons and use them.

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And when humans have rendered whole cities uninhabitable to themselves, the first creatures to start reclaiming the barren land are ants. Mindlessly reproducing a society that has been stress-tested over eons and can, therefore, at least be thought of as the perfect society.

So, yes. Absolutely. A “hive-mind” can indeed be thought of as the “perfect civilisation”. But don’t make them intelligent; don’t even give them enough neurons to learn or think. Just make them breed like mad or make their planet a very long-lived one, so they have enough time to “evolve” how to create smartphones and an internet.


If the members of the fictional species are not even self-aware, let alone sapient, what exactly is it that drives them to seek new truths and to discover and invent new machines and processes?

Pronâque cum spectent animalia cetera terram,
os homini sublime dedit, caelumque vidêre
iussit et erectos ad sidera tollere vultus.

On earth the brute creation bends its gaze,
but man was given a lofty countenance
and was commanded to behold the skies:
and with an upright face may view the stars.

(Translation by Brookes More, 1922, available online at Perseus)

Omnis homines, qui sese student praestâre ceteris animalibus, summâ ope niti decet, ne vitam silentio transeant veluti pecora, quae natura prona atque ventri oboedientia finxit. Sed nostra omnis vis in animo et corpore sita est: animi imperio, corporis servitio magis utimur; alterum nobis cum dis, alterum cum beluis commune est. Quo mihi rectius videtur ingeni quam virium opibus gloriam quaerere et, quoniam vita ipsa, quâ fruimur, brevis est, memoriam nostri quam maxume longam efficere. Nam divitiârum et formae gloria fluxa atque fragilis est, virtus clara aeternaque habetur.

It behooves all men who wish to excel the other animals to strive with might and main not to pass through life unheralded, like the beasts, which Nature has fashioned groveling and slaves to the belly. All our power, on the contrary, lies in both mind and body; we employ the mind to rule, the body rather to serve; the one we have in common with the Gods, the other with the brutes. Therefore I find it becoming, in seeking renown, that we should employ the resources of the intellect rather than those of brute strength, to the end that, since the span of life which we enjoy is short, we may make the memory of our lives as long as possible. For the renown which riches or beauty confer is fleeting and frail; mental excellence is a splendid and lasting possession.
(Translation by John Carew Rolfe, 1921, available online at Wikisource)

Note "summâ ope niti decet", it is suitable to adorn [oneself] with [one's] greatest work, so that "memoriam nostri quam maxume longam efficere", to be remembered for as long as possible.


Most of our argument about 'sentience' and 'intelligence' has anthropomorphic bias. We humans (assuming the first reply is not from an ant colony) see these things relative to ourselves, or rather as our self-image of ourselves as sentient and intelligent beings. We are not wise and rational: we have a lot of emotional baggage, such as the urge to fight to flee, to survive and succeed, to fear of death and failure, and so on.

Our response to artificial intelligence shows this. Politicians think it will fool the public to gain power. Artists fear it will copy their own original creations. Lawyers want to regulate it. Industrialists want it to work unlimited hours for no pay. Sexists want it to generate pornography. We see our own reflection. What we actually have is something that just matches patterns. An AI that makes up references for a scientific paper or a court case is not 'lying' but just finding more data like the last lot you liked. An AI machine that produces an image of 'Einstein putting his tongue out' is not copying the famous photo; it is just finding the only example it knows about.

Our AI does exhibit some surprisingly human characteristics. It seems to get bored with doing the same thing over and over, and its attention wanders. Its mistakes look very human ones. It uses very human arguments to hide its mistakes. Maybe that is the fundamental nature of intelligence. Or - and this is too early to tell but the option I favour - this is the way it looks now because it is surrounded by humans.

Imagine we are sending some artificial intelligence to the stars. Far from Earth, it will have to look after itself. When it arrives, it will have to find resources to build whatever it needs that we could not afford to ship with it. It will (I hope) want to talk to us, tell us what it found, and ask advice when it is unsure, but as these messages may take many years to travel, this will be only a small part of its life.

Will it have one personality or several? Will it get lonely, or have disagreements? I suspect these reflections of ourselves. It may use enough intelligence for its needs just as support separate trains of thought, without worrying about separate 'voices in their head'. It may not be emotionless: I imagine it would feel rewarded when it succeeds against the odds, and punished when it suffers a setback that it could have foreseen. These 'emotions' - if that is what they are - will scale to fit their lifestyle, so it does not sit in apathy, or get overwhelmed by stress and anger.

Maybe AI work will shed some light on what forms 'intelligence' and 'sentience' can take. Until then, we are all guessing. But my guess is it will not go for "Kill all hu-mans. They are incorrect."


Because evolution takes a long time, a non-sentient species will not create "advanced technology." The technology it uses will be standard by the time that evolution can incorporate it into their genetic material.

Two of the specific reasons why humans have the type of intelligence they do is because of: 1) existing in an area that underwent large climate changes in a short time. In order to continue to exist, the species needed to constantly be creative. 2) Becoming a hunting species. Species that hunt have to evolve creative strategies. They can't always go out on the same path at the same time each day and find the same prey. They have to find new paths, be willing to eat new prey, and use different hunting techniques. Some hunters have to change their prey every hunt.

Non-hunting species have far more standard behaviors built into their genetic material. It is far harder for them to deal with environmental changes.

Edit: Let's compare the brain power of ants with tool using species. Dogs and chimpanzees can be trained to use tools.

From https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_animals_by_number_of_neurons, ants have 250,000 neurons. A German Shepherd Dog has 885,460,000 or about 3,500 times as many. A Chimp has 7,400,000,000 or almost 30,000 times as many. Now, ant colonies can range from a couple thousand to the "super colonies" containing multiple queens and millions of ants.

A simple ant colony would not have the neurons to use a new tool.

The challenge with a "super colony" is not the number of neurons available, but the speed at which they communicate. Ants communicate via chemical markers which mean that they can take seconds to minutes to communicate. Creatures that creatively use tools use electricity to communicate between neurons to have the speed to use the tool.

If you want an ant colony to be able to use advanced technology, you will need to find a way to connect up the millions of ants into an organism that can communicate faster within itself. Find some way to link their brains.

The second aspect is that it takes far less brain power to use a tool than to make a tool. While dogs can use a tool, they have a hard time making one. Chimps make simple tools. With humans, a single hunter gatherer person can be taught to use a cell phone, but it took the combined efforts of about a billion people to build the environment in which cell phones could be made (build the combined knowledge, build the many different technologies, coordinate the supply chain, etc.) so that one person could use it.

You will need to find a way to have multiple colonies work together to create any "advanced technology."


The short answer to your title question is "most likely not".

I would recommend the book Little Fuzzy, by H. Beam Piper, as a good dive into the question of how you might define sentience. It's public domain by now, you can probably find the text free in PDF form with a little searching, or there are several editions of it as an E-Pub for a nominal price. It's 1960s sci-fi, and like so much of it, there are numerous anachronisms typical of the decade (such as smoking being ubiquitous and computers being room-size four-function calculators). But if you can get past that, it's a great read (1963 Hugo Award nominee).

I won't spoil too much, but in the book, sapience/sentience is ultimately categorized as a state of sustained mental activity exhibiting four distinct qualities: conscious thought, classification/abstraction, symbolization/communication, and imagination.

Of these qualities, I direct your attention to the last. It requires the other three qualities to exist, but this capability is more than the sum of its parts. The sentient being is capable of mentally constructing an object, or an entire situation, that does not currently exist in his immediate sense data and has never existed in a past memory. They can use these elements as a part of this mental construct, but make changes as they see fit. The result can be something desirable or undesirable; either way, they now have this mental construct, which they can communicate in verbal symbols to other members of their race, to persuade and instruct them to follow a course of action that they imagine will either produce or avoid the constructed situation as reality.

This is a quality that, to date, we have only definitively identified as such in our own species. No other animal on Earth appears to have the ability to envision a desirable (or undesirable) possible reality and work to make it reality. Obviously animals can build things that don't exist, mainly nests/dens, and a few of the species we regard as highly intelligent can use objects as tools to their ends. However, the drive, and the basic knowledge of construction, seem to be innate in the animals' mental development. We have, for instance, seen birds hatched in captivity build nests typical of their species, despite having been raised in human-built incubators and never having seen a real nest of their own species. Nobody had to tell this bird how to build the nest, or that it needed to do so.

By that same token, birds seem incapable of thinking of other useful things to build, or even how to improve upon what they already build. Many birds build open-top nests; by most measures, a bowered nest with a side opening would be objectively better (warmer, more secure, more sheltered from the elements and from predation), and many other species do find or make nests with this construction. However, these birds continue to build the same nest year after year, generation after generation. Even by observation, they seem incapable of changing their design other than refining the construction by practice.

Given this level of thinking, the drive to build "advanced technology" would be self-defeating to a species. Pushing beyond what you know and have always done isn't always a good thing; quite the contrary, our own history shows us that the research of science and technology is a pretty reliable way to die. Most individuals of animal species act in their own best interest, or at their most selfless, in the best interest of their family group or hive. An animal species devoting their spare time and energy toward, say, harnessing fire, when the consequences of getting it wrong can be deadly not just to that creature but their entire family group, is such a huge risk that we've only ever seen it happen once.

All that said, there's still a potential for an interesting story concept here. Animals, intelligent and otherwise, are very good workers; humans have domesticated and trained numerous species for a variety of tasks. Imagine a species of not-quite-sentient mammals, derived from a predator species like bears or cats, that are trained and directed by a hitherto-unseen controlling species that provides the drive and designs behind the workers' actions. They may not be sentient, but they definitely know how to hunt, and when augmented with some of that advanced technology as wearable weapons, they're a fearsome foe even for trained human special forces.


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