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Wednesday, January 9, 2008

How Close Are We To The Practical Limits Of Human Intelligence?

Of course there are rare individuals of prodigious intellectual potential. However, we might legitimately ask; is culture more the result of breakthroughs of the rare genius or the ability of the masses to absorb knowledge thus revealed?

The following list illustrates a range of possible outcomes.

a. Breakthroughs in fundamental knowledge will continue at accelerating pace.
b. Complexity of remaining unknowns is approaching human limits of understanding.
c. Fewer and fewer members of human species have the capacity to understand at the frontiers of knowledge.
d. Technological tools that assist human understanding of complexity will allow humans to overcome cognitive limits.
e. Technology embedded in our daily infrastructure will continue to effectively protect us from our lack of knowledge as average members of human society.
f. Innate limits in human complexity handling mean we are in for a heap of trouble.
g. The future depends on systems that are more cognitively robust than humans.

Arguments are made that any such theoretical limits are mitigated at least in part by the products of human intellectual achievement... by technology. Technology, it is argued, is a set of tools that act as a lever between our own limits and that which is possible. By this reasoning my original question is rendered mute as human cognitive capacity becomes mercurial... remains in lockstep with theoretical geometric acceleration of discovery... there are no limits! But this argument is dependent upon some rather large assumptions. The central assumption is sort of a Keynesian extension to Allen Turing's notion that given enough time, any problem solving machine can solve any problem regardless of size or complexity. It is understood that Allen was correct in this regard. What makes the idea Keynesian is the tendency to ignore the "given enough time" caveat. In the context of human affairs (and human productive life-spans), it is obvious that time is not a resource to be trivialized. In addition, one must consider the difference between using technology and understanding the technology we use. To what extent does the use of technology actually distance us from the reality of the natural laws that are thus harnessed? I believe I am seeing a disturbing trend in a growing percentage of the population in the most technologically advanced regions of global society who seem to be moving towards a world view that is consciously ignorant of physical law. I wonder if the absolute stability and reliability of modern infrastructure (heat, plumbing, every manor of electrical convenience and entertainment, almost guaranteed access to 85 years of life, ready and easy availability of almost unlimited quantities of food, cars trains boats jet aircraft and rockets that both flatten and shrink the geographic world to our every whim) has itself worked against any personal or societal need to respect and honor (and provide continued resources towards) the hard won knowledge that sits at base of each of these luxuries.

There are a million and one ways in which our future is hinged upon a deep and close examination of these issues critical to the continued evolution of complexity.


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