We are getting smarter as a matter of survival

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.

Daniel Lemire, "We are getting smarter as a matter of survival," in Daniel Lemire's blog, March 25, 2013.

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Daniel Lemire

A computer science professor at the University of Quebec (TELUQ).

5 thoughts on “We are getting smarter as a matter of survival”

  1. It is common to assume that increased intelligence is better for survival. But, it is worth questioning that assumption. Brains take a lot of energy. The most successful creatures on earth when judged by biomass and energy utilized are single celled organisms.How much intelligence do these bacteria have?

    Unfortunately, it is hard to measure the amount of ‘brain power’ in the molecular networks of a cell and to speak to the more general problem, how much of their energy is being devoted to computational processes as opposed to other processes like metabolism, movement, etc.

    A cleaner example compares biological matter to non biological matter. One of the distinguishing traits of biology is that it stores, copies, and processes information (i.e. DNA/RNA). By contrast non biological matter does not seem to do these things. On the whole, non-biological matter dominates the biological. That is, there is much much more of it than there is of us. This is strong evidence that there are only rare situations where information processing is actually advantageous in our universe.

    Getting back to humans, I think we can safely say that our current intelligence is something of an anomaly. We’ve found niche burning trees and fossil fuels in which a little extra intelligence lets us survive much better. It is possible that we will find new niches like this and the utility of increased intelligence will continue. It is also possible that this niche will disappear with the fossil fuels and none will emerge to replace it. Instead we will be left to join our not too distant brethren swinging tree to tree and searching for some tasty fruits to eat. In this case, we might do well to drop the brain size a little to something sufficient for the task at hand and save the extra energy to spend on something more pressing.

  2. @Benjamin

    While intelligence certainly isn’t a one way street, there’s a long evolutionarily trail of increased intelligence that starts well before cultivated fire. Spinal cords could have been the peak, or lizard brains, or simple mammalian brains, and maybe modern human brains are, but so far a bet that more intelligence would be detrimental hasn’t panned out.

    And in the long view, a high intelligence level is necessary for survival. If the current bacteria lineage exists in a billion years or so it’ll be because intelligence brought it along to another star.

  3. @Paul

    You bring up a good point. It seems that max intelligence has been increasing over earths history, (though its hard to administer an IQ test to a dinosaur). It may be the case that average intelligence has gone up too, but thats pretty hard to prove.

    I did find a couple of studies published not long ago that looked at the correlation between brain size and survival. They found that bigger brains were a win for small mammals, but not large mammals [see 1].

    I think we can take that as evidence that perhaps average intelligence has been increasing as well. But I think my argument still stands up. For any given species intelligence might be advantageous or not, its a matter of environment.

    Also, I like your point that panspermia might depend on intelligence. I hope that’s true.

    [1] http://phys.org/news/2012-07-animals-bigger-brains-prone-extinction.html

  4. The difference between average and max intelligence is an interesting point. I wonder if that’s a common byproduct of evolution: over time the number of flying species may decrease, creating a lower average “flying quotient”, but the creatures that do inhabit that niche continue to improve at what they do, upping the max. If so, we can see obvious cases where a trait did reach a peak and decrease, such as size.

    On Panspermia, an interesting outcome would be if we never quite get to human level stellar travel, and the best we’ve got for something that can hibernate for millenia and then colonize a hostile planet are the bacteria. A little bit of human ingenuity, a little bit of bacterial survival skills and this tree of life continues.

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