The Evolution of Intelligence
The mathematician G.H. Hardy once wrote that “for any serious purpose, intelligence is a very minor gift.” As someone who intimately knew some of the greatest minds in history, he would know.
What he meant was there many things other than intelligence that are required to succeed at an intellectual task. Persistence and luck surely play a role and, as Einstein famously noted, imagination is supremely important.
Nevertheless, intelligence is something we admire, both in ourselves and in others. It has been considered for most of history, to be a uniquely human virtue. So it is unnerving, even terrifying, when we encounter other types of intelligence. From crowdsourcing to computers performing human tasks, we’re going to have to learn to make our peace.
Human intelligence has been the subject of intense study for over a century, mainly by way of IQ scores, which are based on standardized tests. While often maligned they have been shown to correlate between 30% to 50% with professional achievement.
It also has a significant genetic component, which accounts for the amazing capabilities of child prodigies. Some, like Gauss, who corrected his father’s arithmetic at the age of three and John von Neumann who could read entire books and recite them from memory in another language, went on to great accomplishments, although most geniuses do not.
On the other hand, there are many who are revered for their intelligence but do not have exceptional IQ scores. Richard Feynman, considered by many to be one of the greatest minds of the 20th century, had an IQ of 125, high but not unusual. Many have suggested that once you’re smart enough, higher intelligence won’t help you much.
Nevertheless, we admire intelligence because it is a personal quality. Smart people are interesting, can solve tough problems and delight us with their sharp wit.
Whatever an individual’s intelligence, it is, for many tasks, dwarfed by collective intelligence. As James Surowiecki explained in The Wisdom of Crowds, collections of people are consistently more accurate than experts. Some technologies, like InTrade and Google Flu Trends, are designed to harness the power of the hive mind to predict events.
Further, collective intelligence can be used to create as well as to predict. Wikipedia is far more comprehensive and accurate than any encyclopedia developed by editors. Open source software, such as Linux and Apache, runs much of our most critical technological infrastructure.
However, as I’ve written before, crowds can also be stupid. They give us market booms and busts, angry mobs and lots of other bad things. Most corporate acquisitions fail because of the winner’s curse, the documented tendency for firms to overpay. Put a bunch of smart people in a crowd and they can do some seriously stupid things.
For collective intelligence to work, there must be both independence and diversity. If the group lacks independence then feedback loops ensue, which can create runaway ideas that travel far from any semblance of reality. Furthermore, research has shown that diverse groups outperform intelligent ones that are more homogeneous.
The concept of artificial intelligence got it’s start at a conference at Dartmouth in 1956. Optimism ran high and they believed that machines would be able to do the work of humans within 20 years. Alas, it was not to be. By the 1970’s, funding dried up and the technology entered the period now known as the AI winter, where very little happened.
Slowly, however, progress was made. Computers became increasingly able to do human tasks, such as character recognition, making recommendations on Amazon and organizing itineraries on travel sites. We didn’t see the algorithms at work, but they were there, computing on our behalf.
Now artificial intelligence is coming out of the shadows. We ask Siri for directions and fight for our virtual lives in video games. IBM’s Deep Blue triumphed in chess and Watson prevailed in Jeopardy! Google is now developing autonomous vehicles and there are even computers that can understand art.
Ray Kurzweil believes that we will have strong artificial intelligence (machine intelligence that equals or surpasses human intelligence) by around 2030 and, as fast as things are moving, I wouldn’t bet against him.
Flying By Wire
The blurring lines of intelligence are giving us humans something of an identity crises. What happens when such an intensely human quality is usurped – first by faceless masses and then by machines? Where will we find our place in the world?
Stephen Johnson gives us a clue in his new book Future Perfect in which he describes flying by wire, where pilots’ controls are augmented by computer algorithms which are in turn informed by the collective intelligence accumulated over countless hours of previous flights. While the instruments are automated, the intent remains human.
In a similar vein, John Battelle has described Google as a “database of intentions.” Even in our intensely technological world, our dreams and desires remain our own. We retain the power to choose our actions and how we would like to carry them out. We can augment our faculties or leave them bare.
In the future, our world will driven by machine intelligence, but our choices will remain our own.