The Flynn Effect is a
fascinating observation that average human IQ has been rising
steadily since the invention of tests that measure it. It’s
possible that it has been caused directly or indirectly by
increased access to information, technology and human networks. If
that’s the case, and the trend in human IQ is pegged to trends in
these areas, then it’s also possible that we’re about to get a heck
of a lot smarter in a very short span of time. Perhaps even
Ray Kurzweil has
shown that technology is increasing at an exponential, or even
double-exponential rate. A
Berkeley study and a
report by IDC both have confirmed
that the amount of information on Earth is growing at an
exponential rate. It is clear that advances in communication
technology are facilitating an explosion in the rate of
communication between people, thus increasing the value of the
whole according to Metcalfe’s Network
It’s undeniable that these accelerating trends have had a
profound impact on social behavior, in particular our ability to
solve ever more complex problems. If you don’t believe me, simply
take a look at how quickly a person or a group can locate
information, bounce it off of others and output that as a rich
white paper, business strategy or more advanced technology—then
imagine how difficult that same task would have been minus the
internet, huge bodies of amassed knowledge and an environment chock
full of complex and inspirational solutions to diverse problem
Human brains are not closed systems. They are constantly
learning better ways to input, sort and output information
(ultimately this manifests as culture). In order to increase their
intelligence, they must encounter information, technology and
interact with other humans. It has been shown that children raised
sans society are beyond dysfunctional, and that humans who miss
critical periods for learning things as simple as counting from 1
to 10 or certain ways of looking at time
cannot regain those abilities once the developmental windows
close. This indicates that there is a strong relationship between
access to information + technology and human intelligence.
But just how strong is the link? Will humans get smarter faster
or is there a cut-off point after which technology and information
systems speed off into a phase place where we cannot follow?
Obviously, these are questions with far reaching consequences. The
answers will determine how we evolve, the likelihood of our
survival and/or expansion, whether AI or
the future, and if a singularity
is possible, impossible or desirable.
The more critical the human-tech-info symbiosis, the more likely
it is that the Flynn Effect will continue and translate into
exponential growth of our own intelligence parallel to these other
trends (auto-catalytically), rather than subsequently and as a
by-product of them.
A favorite debate topic for many futurists, humanists, advanced
defense theorists, sci-fi authors and Future Bloggers is the nature of
future terrestrial intelligence increase. As change accelerates,
how how exactly will we and/or the system around us get
The most popular scenario by far is Artificial General
Intelligence , aka AI that equals or surpasses that of
humanity, probably because it is the most immediately relatable and due to the fact that so much money is being
poured into AGI research. In fact, some
researchers are predicting a breakthrough in the field in just
But there are a variety of other scenarios that could either
outcompete this paradigm or conspire with it to accelerate
intelligence in our system. These include human-based, alien-based,
deeply systemic, or even exo-systemic possibilities.
Applying your particular brand of intelligence, which
of the following do you think is the most optimal path to
intelligence increase in the acceleration era? (Survey at end
AGI: Human-generated machine
intelligence such as in the films 2001: A Space
Odyssey and A.I..
Individual Intelligence Amplification: Individual humans
that grow vastly smarter due to hard, biological and/or soft
cognitive upgrades, such as Bean in Ender’s Game.
Social Intelligence Amplification: A group or humanity as
a whole collectively grows smarter, thus taking on the stewardship
role for our Earth and species.
Biological Intelligence Amplification: One, more or all
of the other species on Earth evolve or emerge, aided or
automatically, the foremost intelligence on the planet. This could
be viewed as a Gaiian awakening.
Alien Contact: Through efforts like SETI or
those of the aliens themselves, we come into contact with some
extra-terrestrial intelligence based in our universe that either
stewards us or gives us a nice boost, a la the Vulcans in
although this would likely be considerably more extreme.
There’s an interesting comment thread occurring over at Kevin Kelly’s Technium blog attached to his Singularity critique. One of the more provocative statements pertains to the possibility of intelligence commoditization:
“The one thing the ‘Singularity’ will in fact be able to achieve will be the commoditizing of intelligence.” - John
Here’s my response:
The gradual commoditization of processes and basic intelligence has been underway for a while already. Certainly I can see the water level rising. But, if the proper intelligence growth model is collective and individual intelligence amplification (IA) (Flynn’s research would certainly suggest the latter) then we’ll keep evolving right alongside AI. Perhaps this will be a grow-and-become-more- novel/specialized-or-be-commoditized model, but it certainly leaves some room, even in an abrupt singularity scenario, for non-commoditization of some or most “human” intelligence (which I think is the wrong way to view intelligence, it’s more a system property that manifests in agents).
That being said, super-smart tech will be very disruptive in the coming decade and it remains to be seen how quickly we’ll amplify our intelligence, but I do think acceleration in info, tech and comm will up our ability to cope and devote more brains to higher level functions.
So what do you think?
The Singularity Frankenstein has been rearing its morphous head of late and evoking reactions from a variety of big thinkers. The latest to draw a line in the sands of accelerating change is Kevin Kelly, Wired co-founder and evolutionary technologist, who makes a compelling case against a sharply punctuated and obvious singularity. His argument is based on the following points:
1) A Strong-AI singularity is unlikely to emerge before Google does it first.
“My current bet is that this smarter-than-us intelligence will not be created by Apple, or IBM, or two unknown guys in a garage, but by Google; that is, it will emerge sooner or later as the World Wide Computer on the internet,” writes Kelly.
I agree that powerful intelligence far more likely to emerge as a property of the global brain and body in co-evolution with accelerating information growth than in a lab.
More fundamentally, I think our system is consistently advancing its intelligence, making human intelligence non-static. Therefore the notion of Strong AI is an illusion because our basis for comparison 1) is constantly changing, and 2) is erroneously based on a simple assessment of the computational power of a single brain outside of environmental context, a finding backed by cognitive historian James Flynn.
So yes, Google may well mimic the human brain and out-compete other top-down or neural net projects, but it won’t really matter because intelligence will increasingly be viewed as a network related property. (It’s a technical point, but an important distinction.)
2) The Singularity recedes as we develop new abilities.
Kelly writes, “The Singularity is an illusion that will be constantly retreating—always ‘near’ but never arriving.”
This statement is spot-on. As we amplify our collective intelligence (IA) at an accelerating rate and develop new capabilities we get better at peering ahead. The implication is that we co-evolve with technology and information to do so, assimilating intelligence along the way. In such an IA scenario, there simply is no dichotomy between us and it. It’s a we.
While Kelly alludes to IA in his World Wide Computer statement, he could bloster his argument by stressing the connection between human, informational and technological evolution and development.
(For more on this, check out this Future Blogger post by Will.)
3) Imagining a sequence of scenarios doesn’t take into account system dynamics. Thinking machines must co-evolve with the environment in order for intelligence to be meaningful.
“Thinking is only part of science; maybe even a small part,” points out Kelly. “Without conducting experiments, building prototypes, having failures, and engaging in reality, an intelligence can have thoughts but not results. It cannot think its way to solving the world’s problems. There won’t be instant discoveries the minute, hour, day or year a smarter-than-human AI appears.”
Intellectual attribution is far from perfect, but as we systematically quantify the nature of the vast Idea Sea in which we swim, we will also create a more effective and equitable market for new innovations.
Last week a pair of Nobel Prize winning scientists conceded that much of their research had been based on an earlier study by a geneticist who now drives a shuttle for $8/hour just to keep food on the table, but of course didn’t go so far as to offer him a share of the $1.5 million prize they’d been awarded. This example clearly brings into focus the limits of our current idea attribution economy, a system that clearly isn’t encouraging a Nobel-caliber scientist to continue innovating for broader social benefit.
But rather than jump on the IP- and patent-bashing bandwagon as many bloggers tend to do, I’d like to explore how our idea attribution system might evolve over the coming decade.
First, let me be clear about my definition of the term “idea”. Ideas can more specifically be broken down into memes – “ideas or behaviors that can pass from one person to another by learning or imitation”, memeplexes – “groups of religious, cultural, political, and idealogical doctrines and systems”, and temes – “information copied by books, phones, computers and the Internet”. These structures co-evolve with humans to ultimately form a massive sea of what we commonly refer to as ideas. Though individuals often combine memes into valuable new memeplexes, no one person can ever truly claim total ownership of a concept that is essentially an outgrowth of the idea sea.