A Calculator is Artificial Intelligence

Updated: May 28

Because Google Adsense deemed this website to have too little content for ads, I'll be posting my top 25 undergraduate papers. My final undergraduate class was a history class about artificial intelligence. This was my favourite the bunch of papers that I wrote for that class. It's my favourite because its a philosophical discussion of a central question to the class. What exactly is artificial intelligence? To answer that you have to know what is intelligence. A calculator is the perfect case study.

Dalhousie University

HSTC 2410

July 2nd, 2021

A calculator is a form of artificial intelligence. It is perhaps the most basic form of artificial intelligence crafted by humans, but nonetheless, artificial intelligence it certainly is. It may be difficult to come up with solid foundations for the meaning behind terms such as artificial intelligence. In fact, an entire academic field could be comprised of trying to effectively define the term intelligence. However, when building on top of the pre-existing foundations in the academic discourse around intelligence, it becomes fairly clear that an essential foundational function of a calculator fits within the framework of intelligence and thus it makes absolute sense to classify the calculator as one of the most basic and first artificial intelligence devices ever created.

Artificial intelligence is a term with existing definitions. The meaning behind “artificial” is comparatively clear. We intend the term to refer to something that humans have designed and/or engineered. However, there is plenty of debate around what the term “intelligence” should refer to. The controversy is with respect to potential anthropocentrism. Meaning that it is problematic for fairly obvious reasons for humans to be the sole definers of intelligence. For example, humans may think certain abilities of sea creatures don’t count as examples of intelligence. But humans are land mammals therefore it is safe to assume that most humans do not see the value in the abilities of sea creatures because those skills are of no use to them. It is best to explain the foundations of the meaning of intelligence with real world examples of non-human animals on our planet.

One of the skills that we look for in other species as a sign of intelligence is the ability to recognize ones self. This test is known as the mirror test. Everyone who has had a pet or dog knows that when they step in front of a mirror it is usually clear that they are not aware what they are seeing is a reflection of themselves. However, it appears as though Dolphins are a species which do pass the mirror test.(1) Another example of a cross species intelligence test is that of the usage of tools. Recently orangutang have been observed picking up sticks and putting them inside of ant holes in order to eat the ants off of the stick.(2) While the self recognition ability may not have any conceivable connection to the discourse around whether or not the calculator can be considered a form of artificial intelligence, the example of tool usage certainly is an example of such.

When an orangutang is using a stick as a tool to fetch ants to eat, it is using a tool in order to sustain itself and continue its survival. In the fields of economics and biology, intelligence is generally seen as an organism or species acting in ones self-interest.(3) An organism acting in its own self-interest is proof of intelligence because prolonging your survival and proliferating your gene pool is of the utmost importance to the DNA which is trying to replicate itself. In order to survive, an organism must be able to make decisions such as fishing in a river with more fish than zero, hunting in an area with more than zero prey, etc. Therefore, the ability to distinguish zero from a quantity greater than zero is essential to the survival of a species and is thus a basic form of intelligence. It certainly is common knowledge that the basis of code for computers is comprised of zeros and ones. However, that ability to distinguish zero from a quantity greater than zero is an essential bedrock of the function of a calculator. That is why it is reasonable to count a calculator as one of the most basic forms of artificial intelligence.

A calculator is an example of artificial intelligence because it possesses one of the skills required for an organism to self-proliferate. It may not seem obvious at first glance, but in order for many organisms to survive, they need to be able to distinguish between zero and a number greater than zero. If they acted solely on randomness, they would starve trying to fish in lifeless waters or hunt in lifeless lands. Calculators understand that zero is different from one because it is a necessity in being able to determine quantities. That necessity may not seem like intelligence at first glance. But is extremely important that humans try to broaden their scope of what they consider intelligence. If they do not, they risk not seeing the beauty of other wildlife that surrounds them.


Gorman, James. “Dolphins Show Self-Recognition Earlier Than Children.” The New York Times. The New York Times, January 10, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/10/science/dolphins-self-recognition.html.

Orangutan Using Tool. YouTube. YouTube, 2013. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pXOTAgq-eiY.

Kenton, Will. “What Is Self-Interest?” Investopedia. Investopedia, June 10, 2021. https://www.investopedia.com/terms/s/self-interest.asp.

1 - Gorman, James. “Dolphins Show Self-Recognition Earlier Than Children.” The New York Times.

2 - Orangutan Using Tool. YouTube, 2013.

3 - Kenton, Will. “What Is Self-Interest?” Investopedia.