The Sphex wasp has earned a place in philosophical and programming debates on the subject of Artificial Intelligence, due to the way in which it displays behavior that seems intelligent, but can be easily hacked.

When it is time to lay her eggs, the female Sphex will find a nice, fat, caterpillar, and sting it to paralyze it. Then she will deposit her eggs in the flesh of the caterpillar. As the caterpillar sits on the ground, contemplating this change of events in its life, the wasp will wander off and dig a hole to put it in, so that the eggs will develop and hatch in relative security. When the hole is complete, she will emerge, and drag the caterpillar to the entrance, then make one last trip inside the burrow to double-check the stability. When everything looks good, she will finally drag the caterpillar inside and cover it up.

Sound pretty sophisticated? Not quite. We can place a malicious grad student next to the hole, armed (hopefully) with a pair of tweezers. When the mama wasp enters the hole a second time to do her double-checking, the grad student can grab the caterpillar and move it about six inches away from the hole.

What will happen now? When the wasp exits the hole, she will find the caterpillar, drag it back to the entrance, then go back into the hole, to double-check it again. If our grad student moves the caterpillar this time, she will do the same thing; drag back to the hole, check inside, then come out to get her caterpillar.

Our poor grad student can move that caterpillar all day long, and it will never occur to the wasp that she has "double"-checked her hole numerous times, and she can now just grab the darn caterpillar and bury it. She will only stop when our grad student gets bored and lets her put the caterpillar in the hole, or when our grad student gets frustrated and stomps on her.

In honor of the Sphex wasp, Douglas Hofstadter coined the term sphexish, which refers to any AI system that can be tricked into repeating stupid behavior indefinitly without learning to stop.

Sphex (?), n.[NL., fr. Gr. , , a wasp.] Zool.

Any one of numerous species of sand wasps of the genus Sphex and allied genera. These wasps have the abdomen attached to the thorax by a slender pedicel. See Illust. of Sand wasp, under Sand.

Sphex fly Zool., any one of numerous species of small dipterous flies of the genus Conops and allied genera. The form of the body is similar to that of a sphex.

 

© Webster 1913.

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