Intelligence Rising: Climbing the Stairs of Abstraction

January 06 2009 / by Alvis Brigis / In association with Future
Category: Technology   Year: Beyond   Rating: 3 Hot

A variety of thinkers have converged on the notion that humans rely on what is essentially "software" to build our simulation(s) of the world around us. 

Abstractions Driving the Flynn Effect: Cognitive historian James Flynn attributes the steady rise in IQ over the past 100+ years (known as the Flynn Effect) to better human abstraction abilities, not to any significant increase in physical brain power: glowing_brain_290.jpg

Our brains at conception are no better than they ever were. But in response to the evolving demands of society, we can attack a far wider range of problems than our ancestors could. It is like the evolution of the motor car in the 20th century. Are automotive engineers any brighter than they were 100 years ago? – no. But have cars evolved to meet modern demands for more speed and entertainment while we drive (radios, tape decks, etc) – yes. Our brains are no better but our minds have altered as dramatically as our cars.

Flynn's observations line up nicely with both the concept of memes & temes advanced by Dawkins and Blackmore, as well as philosopher Terence McKenna's theory that culture is in fact an operating system.

In other words, the abstract thought frameworks that we drill into our children during critical periods, including math, science, biology, maps, businesses, social networks, new language, etc, are in fact a form of software that affects our IQ and ability to navigate the world.

This simple yet powerful abstraction (npi) is a critical paradigm shift in our definition of what it means to be human and opens the door to additional metaphors for social, economic and intelligence studies. 

Particularly intriguing is the question of how quickly and/or regularly we (individuals, groups, societies, nations) experience software upgrades, akin to loading the latest Windows or Linux versions.

Looking back to our humble human beginnings we can see that we've used a mix of better technology, new information, better communication and brain-based intelligence to regularly broaden and refine our simulations of the world.  We've done so primarily by developing and spreading abstractions such as animism, map making/geography, heliocentrism, mathematical modeling, economics, biological categorization, physics and chemistry, etc.  While it is arguable that such abstractions have not necessarily made life better, and may have in fact detached us from nature (ie, preventing the mind from entering dreamtime), it is inargueable that such innovations have driven extension of human life span, survival rates, resource control and adaptability.

It is also inarguable that the pace of the diffusion of these abstractions has steadily increased, though they have often progressed in spurts, such as when a new religion or set of national vlaues swept through a given region, or when new communication technology such as the printing press suddenly accelerated the pace of meme swapping.

Flynn's Criticisms: Unfortunately, according to Flynn, we may well be approaching the uppermost limits of the individual brain's ability to process abstractions.  He bases this hypothesis on plateuing IQ gains in Scandinavia:

The rise in IQ scores is a function of total social forces of which the acceleration of information accumulation and technological change is only one. This is proven by the fact that in nations most advanced in these things, IQ gains have slowed and perhaps even stopped (Scandinavia). Most people live their lives with family, at work, and enjoying leisure. A more favorable ratio of adults to children in the home has driven IQ gains and now this has reached a limit with only one or two children and is reversing with the rise of solo-parent families. Formal education now takes up, for many, the years before 30 and it is not clear that people with tolerate much more. Leisure is also about as cognitively demanding as many will tolerate. The proportion of managerial and professional work roles is reaching “feather-bedding” levels. Perhaps as many people have absorbed the scientific ethos as can do so. The next century could see a period of decadence in advanced societies so that people are less willing to do cognitive exercise.

But compelling as it may seem, I find this portion of Flynn's thinking flawed for two reasons:

1) IQ Measurements Should Not Be Cut Off From the System: Though Flynn himself is one of the biggest proponents of expanding the definition of intelligence to include the system in which it exists, he stops short of recommending that we allow humans taking IQ tests to use the surrounding system to create solutions.  Because IQ is an approximation of efficient and advantageous capabilities, it is rather silly (unless you're looking to get a rough score very quickly - which is extremely useful) to cut off those being tested from technology, information and communication devices. 

Instead, intelligence would ideally be measured by the amount of space, time, energy, matter and information (STEMI) required to accomplish a set of complex problems.  (For the truest results, such an examination would allow for the use of money, established connections and resources, but obviously that wouldn't make sense in most cases due to practical and moral considerations.  However, as we move forward and quantify more and more human behavior in real-time, it will become possible to generate longitudinal scores for "intelligence", "aptitude", "adaptability", etc, that more closely mirror fundamental human economics.)

The bottom line is that as the definition of intelligence is expanded to incorporate all surrounding forces, the link between it and domains like technology, communication and communication becomes more obvious and direct.  From this perspective, structures like Google, Facebook, simulations of our world and the Web itself become extensions of intelligence rather than discrete units removed from discrete human brains.  As such structures evolve and grow, so too does "our" intelligence. 

2) Underestimating the Impact of Accelerating Change on Learning: Exponential growth in technology, information and communication is helping us to 1) better the abstractions/software that we run on our brains, and 2) helping us to better outsource pieces of our memory, cognition and intelligence to our environment.  When Flynn questions the ability of humans to absorb more abstractions, he is likely not taking into account rapidly evolving innovations in areas like social media, game-based learning, virtual words/simulations, brain computer interfaces and memory/cognition enhancements, etc, that together can enhance intelligence and human capability in amazing new ways, especially when combined with better understanding of the brain, developmental periods and intelligence itself. 

Just imagine what humans using the web will be capable of 10 years from now.  If we consider that "intelligence", then it will have risen considerably, and probably exponentially.

As far as a scenario in which people opt for decadence over cognitive advancement, I admit that it's a possibility, but think that the fundamental nature of human competition vs. other humans and our chaotic space environment is likely to provoke us to keep evolving capabilities.  It's also possible that either 1) some humans and not others will choose to continue amplifying their intelligence, or 2) that through outsourcing our intelligence to the web we will lose control of it.

The Future: If intelligence is tied directly to exponential growth in communication, information and technology, then we should expect our steadily improving abstraction ability (systems maps, theories) to dramatically transform our capabilities in the near-term.  The manner in which we learn, draw in information, interact with our environment, and exist culturally may well undergo changes as radical as those that many futurists and transhumanists predict for the technology realm.  In other words, we'll all be much smarter soon.

How exactly this intelligence will manifest is highly unpredictable.  We know that it will involve powerful exponential drivers, market and survival forces, but the exact innovations will of course surprise us (though many will seem eminently obvious in retrospect).  Ideally, the process will grow the total pie, push us all up the Hierarchy of Needs and work out nicely with our environment.  However, it's also possible that rapid intelligence increase may require a new era of hyper competition during which we trade decadence for extreme stress.

However it all plays out, it's high time the study of Intelligence Amplification starts getting the attention it deserves alongside it's exceedingly popular cousin Artificial Intelligence.

Comment Thread (2 Responses)

  1. We can of course talk about “paradigm shifts”, “memes” and exponential growth of everything. But a very simple and plausible explanation of Flynn Effect is greater familiarity with multiple-choice questions and experience with brain-teaser IQ problems.

    Posted by: johnfrink   January 06, 2009
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  2. “But a very simple and plausible explanation of Flynn Effect is greater familiarity with multiple-choice questions and experience with brain-teaser IQ problems.”

    The naysayer speaks. You almost sound as though you’re in denial, but the first seven words of your sentence betray the fact that you are just speculating. On the other hand, Alvis presented a lot of detail here.

    If you’d actually done a challenging multiple choice exam, you’d know that they can be more difficult than ordinary questions. Familiarity with the format is no help whatsoever. However, if indeed the brain adapts to the (quite severe) mental challenge of distinguishing four deceptively similar answers, we have a name for that – we call it learning.

    I feel you didn’t read the post. I’m also tired of your cynical view of human nature, and complete inability to take a long term view of human history. On cosmic and geological timescales (billions of years), imagine what you observe on this planet. For half its life, the planet is covered in a sludge of bacteria, and then, in what seems like an instant, we have the Roman Empire – and then, cell phones, satellite television, mothers-in-law and super mario brothers 2.

    Something curious is going on. Last-minute explosions in complexity happen because of acceleration (continuously compressing timescales). The increase in human intelligence is just one part of the bigger picture, a bigger picture that you struggle to see as you sit in your naysayer armchair watching Oprah, or, whatever it is you are doing, it has narrowed your perspective so much that you seek to rationalise a very real and illustrative feature of the accelerating universe.

    Posted by: CptSunbeam   January 07, 2009
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