Feedback Made This Bird Sculpture Intelligent—And It Works The Same For You

Psychologist Tom Stafford meets an avant garde sculptor—and has an "aha" moment about how responding to feedback is the essence of intelligence.

A gigantic metal-and-mesh kiwi named Jetsam pokes around an art gallery looking for materials to build a nest. Watching the way it sorts through prospective pieces, you can't help but get the feeling that this clockwork bird is not only goofy and spooky, but also intelligent.

Why?

"The intelligence is in how it responds to the placing of the sticks," observes psychologist Tom Stafford. "It isn't programmed in advance, it identifies where each piece is and where it needs to go. "

No, this isn't an electronic attempt at artificial intelligence, but the cogs and levers of British artist Tim Lewis, who Stafford talked to for BBC Future. Flush from their conversation, Stafford observes that the sculpture has the hallmark of intelligence: flexibility. If its sticks get scattered about, it can find them again, adapting to the environment to find materials for its nest.

Intelligence, (almost) everywhere

"Rather than a brain giving instructions such as 'Do this,'" Stafford writes, "feedback allows instructions such as 'If this, do that; if that, do the other.'"

It's this kind of improvement-by-feedback loop that runs across the domains of innovation: in expanding of your skillset, in how algorithms learn (just like kiwi homunculi!), in the fail-fastedness of entrepreneurship, and in the build-measure-learn mantra of the Lean Startup.

It's all in the information

You don't know if a drug works unless people recover, you can't hit a moving target unless you get feedback on its movement; with enough feedback, you can control anything, Stafford says, even your heart rate, your pupils, your brain cells.

And the better the feedback, Stafford says the better the learning:

if you are learning to take basketball shots, augmented feedback in the form of “You were 3 inches off to the left” can help you learn faster and reach a higher skill level quicker. Perhaps the most powerful example of an augmented feedback loop is the development of writing, which allowed us to take language and experiences, and make them permanent, solidifying it against the ravages of time, space, and memory.

Feedback let us build on the history of our actions, Strafford writes, and in this way, "humanity pulls itself up by its own bootstraps."

So look at the feedback that's constantly coming into your consciousness—to ignore it is career folly.

For more from Tom Stafford, read his ever-interesting blog, Mind Hacks.

Drake Baer covers leadership for Fast Company. You can follow him on twitter.

[Image: Flickr user Carlos Fonseca]

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