Tuesday, July 24, 2007
Why Intelligence? by Jacques Laroche
OK Jacques is one the smartest cats we know. A good friend with a lot of ideas that sure don't get stuck in the box, and to top it off homes is stoked on the fact that his facial hair and glasses resemble those of Isaac Asimov... now honestly if you could beat that with a stick it would have to be a redwood, so when we asked Jacques to contribute to NAME: we knew it was gonna be some heavy, dense, deep stuff and man did he not disappoint. Jac thinks about a lot of stuff all the time. So he gave us his piece on intelligence
A stranger approaches you while you are waiting for the bus and makes you the following offer: “I can make you a multi-billionaire, unbelievably attractive, the sole ruler of a world power or exceptionally brilliant.” Which would you choose? Being part of a group confronted with a similar hypothetical, I was not surprised that the majority chose capitalism, materialism and megalomania (American values through and through) over my unexciting choice of intelligence.
I can understand why the others chose the way they did. After all, money has the ability to purchase anything one might desire, including affection. On the other hand, beauty can feed one’s self-esteem and its hypnotic charm wondrously bends the will of others. Finally, unbridled power inspires obsession because in it, one sees the chance to obtain what they desire through indisputable force. It’s not that these attractions are lost on me; I want to be rich, beautiful and powerful just as the next guy… So, why choose intelligence when it offers so much less of a good time?
In order to answer this question we need to dig a little deeper: What is intelligence, what are its virtues and what are its failings? Isaac Asimov, one of the great notables of science fiction, highlighted an important aspect of the first question in his essay “What Is Intelligence, Anyway?”. In it, he points out that the common view of intelligence - great minds can easily perform any task someone with poor intelligence routinely performs – is completely false. What makes this commonality incorrect is the fact that these ‘great minds’ only do well on general intelligence tests. When scrutinized, these assessments prove to be biased because they only ascertain academic knowledge. As a result, we have academics that can easily pass an SAT or GRE, but could never pass a truck driver’s or sanitation worker’s examination. In essence, Asimov was saying that there are many types of intelligence, but is this all there is to it?
Since antiquity, many great minds have pondered these questions. But, it is only now, after more than two thousand years of technological progress, that science has been able to make great strides in its pursuit. Remarkably, a great deal of this insight has occurred in the short span of ten years – 1990 through 1999, “the decade of the brain.” Though this time is traditionally viewed as the beginning of the computing revolution, the real revolutionaries seem to have been the neuroscientists. While corporations were rushing to cram more circuits into less silicon, brain researchers were using MRIs to explore our biological circuitry. Researchers like A discovered B and ANOTHER RESEARCHER discovered X. As a result, a clearer picture of the brain and intelligence began to take shape and the field was taken to a new domain where our three questions could be seriously addressed.
In a recent New York Academy of Sciences publication, Palm Pilot creator and neuroscientist Jeff Hawkins earnestly approaches the question of intelligence by probing the differences in brain structure between human and non-human animals.
The reptilian brain has sophisticated sensing mechanisms that propel behavior, but lacks a neocortex that allows it to recognize patterns that predict behavior. In humans, the neocortex is very large, and makes predictions very quickly. Iron it out and it would be the size of a dinner napkin, but it contains 30 billion neurons in six folded layers. Those 30 billion neurons ‘are you,’ for from their interaction come all your ideas, memories, knowledge and skills. Our perceptions are all merely matters of pattern recognition, because the neocortex only knows patterns. It has a complex memory system that stores sequences of patterns, and recalls them.
So, if knowledge and understanding of certain domains (say, differential calculus or growing organic sweet potatoes) constitutes intelligence in that specific field and knowledge and understanding arise from stored patterns within our neocortex, then it follows that the essence of intelligence is the ability to recognize and comprehend patterns. Taking another step up the cognitive ladder, we can see that the more information a person commits to memory (either from firsthand experience, books, word of mouth, etc.) the more chances they have to recognize meaningful patterns between all of that data.
Unfortunately, simply amassing knowledge doesn’t guarantee intelligence. One still has to be able to work effectively with their stored knowledge; extrapolating it in order to determine the effects of new inexperienced realities. Without extrapolation, one’s knowledge only applies to parallel situations and can never be put to good use. Put another way, if you acquire knowledge but can’t put it to use in new situations you have booksmarts, not streetsmarts.
Stepping back from patterns and extrapolation, why should anyone choose intelligence over beauty, wealth and power? Simply put, it’s the only one of the four choices that has the power to give you all four. With intelligence, one can earn wealth without the aid of luck, amass lasting power through strategy and even shape the very concept of beauty through reason (beauty is in the eye of the beholder after all). Conversely, wealth, power and beauty can not be amassed, secured or maintained without a certain amount of intelligence.
So if intelligence – the ability to recognize and analyze patterns - is so versatile, what are its shortcomings? Well, for starters, cognition can easily be trumped by emotion. Just think about the last time you got angry about something despite knowing emotional fireworks couldn’t solve the problem? Aside from anger, our emotional palette includes a host of sensations such as jealousy, contempt and fear, each with the ability to overpower logic, reason and intelligence.
Another blow to intelligence comes from is its emptiness; it does not come prepackaged with spirituality or morality. The act of amassing large stores of information and extrapolating new facts from that data does not ensure that one will love their fellow man or champion our environment. Generally, most of us hope that people will come to the conclusion that not loving their fellow man, or disregarding our environment will inevitably lead to trouble ranging from altercations to a massive climate crisis. Unfortunately as modern times show this is not always the case.
Despite its shortcomings, it would be beneficial to society if intelligence and its cultivation held a special place in our hearts. At a time where its importance seems to only receive rhetorical lip service, society mainly addresses its biggest problems – climate change, nuclear proliferation, terrorism and global pandemics - with its contending counterparts: money and power (if at all). If these issues weren’t bad enough, our short-term future promises to hand us a new list of existential threats: unforeseen issues with biotechnology and nanotechnology.
Maybe the problem is intelligence just needs to be revamped. If so, we could jazz it up by coupling it with morality or by somehow assuring its power over our emotions. Interestingly enough, it will take the ‘great minds’ of our day to do this, but something tells me they may need a little help. Since no one can amass enough knowledge to become an expert in all fields, everyone’s intelligence will be required to adjust our view of intelligence and to solve the intricacies of our present and future dilemmas. That means you; the truck drivers and sanitation workers of Asimov’s famed “other intelligences” will need to be on board as well. Photos by A. Harris