A journalism student got very depressed after reading my post on genetically engineered intelligence. His feeling can be summarized by this question: if at some point in the near future, human beings or machines become orders of magnitude smarter than we are, why bother making an effort now? Won’t the great novel you are writing look quaint? Won’t your mathematical theory appear childish? Why bother learning calculus if IBM is about to come up with a computer able to solve all college calculus problems perfectly in seconds?
I want to make two important points as an answer to this question:
1. Each successive generation has been getting smarter
It shouldn’t be shocking to think that our children will be smarter. We are smarter than our parents. A thousand years ago, if you knew how to read or write, you were a scholar (by definition). A few centuries ago, anyone who could read silently (without having to vocalize the words) was regarded with awe. Fifty years ago, people who could use computers for their daily tasks were wizards.
A common mistake is to think that “intelligence” is made of the piece of meat in your brain. Your intelligence is actually an aggregate of your brain with your environment and the tools and ideas around you. Tools extend our intelligence… with computers and robots being obvious examples. Physical tools are not the only things making us smarter however. If you study the work of Newton, the way he presented it himself, it may well be impossible to understand. Newton had to work with relatively weak intellectual tools: he had to do everything through geometry because that’s how people did mathematics at the time. We can now do mathematics much more effectively. That is why there are millions of people who master calculus whereas it was once considered leading edge knowledge, only accessible to the great minds.
In some sense, true mathematics is about constructing mental tools so we can be smarter. So mathematicians have been busy making humanity smarter for centuries.
Many college students, if transported back a century or two in the past, would be phenomenal geniuses. Some might object to that statement. After all, the brains of these teenager is nothing extraordinary. But they are! Our brains are wired in ways that are vastly different. To learn is to rewire your brain. How would you differentiate a genius from someone who has visited the future long enough to steal the best ideas and train in their understanding? You simply couldn’t! As Alan Kay put it: A change of perspective is worth 80 IQ points.
Of course, we are going to hack directly into our brains in the near future. I am still waiting for a chip that will give me access to the web at the speed of the thought. But this will not be a radical departure from what we have been doing for thousands of years: getting smarter faster and faster.
2. We absolutely need to get smarter at an accelerating pace.
Unfortunately, it is not a given that we are going to get much smarter: we could also go extinct or our civilization could collapse. It has happened before. To maintain a sophisticated civilization, we have to keep out-innovating our problems. You may have heard that our civilization is not sustainable. We burn too much fossil oil, we pollute too much, there are too many of us, and so on. This is all true. If we are going to keep on surviving, let alone get better, we need to keep on getting smarter at a rate that exceeds our growing problems. We are not just getting smarter for fun, we are getting smarter as a matter of survival.