Sources: Wikipedia (1, 2), U.S. Air Force

Why Prediction is the Essence of Intelligence

Is it a coincidence that machine learning and intelligence are both rooted in prediction?

Peter Sweeney
Published in
11 min readJun 27, 2017


Are we approaching a momentous juncture when our technology embodies the essence of intelligence? Or is this yet another chapter in a long history of misconceptions? And if it is indeed the essence, in a system of many components, what elevates prediction above the rest?

“Prediction is the essence of intelligence” — Yann LeCun

Yuval Noah Harari advises us to study history to loosen the grip of the past. “Studying history will not tell us what to choose, but at least it gives us more options.” If you’re charting a roadmap in artificial intelligence, surveying the options is prudent. By tracing the work of Marcus Hutter, Shane Legg, Jeff Hawkins, and Yann LeCun, we gain insights into why machine learning holds us in its powerful grip.

(For a shorter read, a summary of this story is provided at the bottom of the page.)

Technology molds our explanations of intelligence

Historically, the dominant technology of each age molded our explanations of how intelligence works. The hydraulic technologies of the ancient Greeks paralleled the flow of “humors”, determining our bodily and mental functions. The mechanical age amplified the idea that humans are machines, including motions in the brain. Enter electricity and communications, and the brain became a switchboard; computing, and the brain is an information processor.

In this age of artificial intelligence, many believe that prediction and learning are the essence of intelligence. Prediction and learning are also the major functional components of machine learning, a dominant technology of this age.

So one possible explanation for why prediction is the essence of intelligence is that our tools are engines of prediction. In this historical context, the essence of the thing is less about the merits of prediction and more about the difficulty in…



Peter Sweeney

Entrepreneur and inventor | 4 startups, 80+ patents | Writes on the science and philosophy of problem solving. | @petersweeney