Human Evolution & Intelligence StudiesTrending Away From Reductionism

April 07 2008 / by Alvis Brigis / In association with Future
Category: Biotechnology   Year: General   Rating: 17 Hot

How strong are your genes? How smart are you? People have traditionally estimated answers to these questions based on genetic surveys and IQ Tests, which can provide valuable answers, but stop well short of factoring in the system(s) surrounding us. This failure to account for environmental effects and group dynamics ultimately caps their utility when it come to the fundamental future-related questions we all seek to answer, like “How probable is it that I/we will survive?” or “How likely is it that I/we will thrive?”

But don’t worry, we’re getting better at quantifying our system all the time. Right now, we may be on the verge of a perspective shift that will help us to fill in a few more gaps and better our systems definitions. Both human intelligence and evolutionary studies appear poised for a due emphasis shift from reductionism (the focus on individual human agents and single brains) to a more holistic (the focus on large groups and the surrounding bio/info/tech structures) approach.

Cognitive theorist Jim Flynn, founder of the Flynn Effect, argues that it is impossible to properly measure intelligence without considering a combination of genetic and environmental effects. He and William Dickens of the Brookings Institution have developed a new model, which demonstrates that environmental factors play a much larger role in the evolution of cognition than previously thought. They theorize about how “industrialization’s rising cognitive demands, at work and leisure, could in fact be the kind of widespread (but not necessarily large), steadily changing environmental factor that could account for the higher IQ scores across so many nations.” (cont.)

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AI: Getting Better All the Time

June 02 2008 / by juldrich / In association with Future
Category: Business & Work   Year: 2020   Rating: 9 Hot

By Jack Uldrich

Cross-posted from

A couple of newsworthy piece have gotten me to thinking about the Beatles’ hit song, “It’s getting better all the time.” The two articles that triggered the connection to the songs’ lyrics are both related to rapidly emerging field of artificial intelligence and I think the saying “getting better all the time” is a phrase we all need to keep in mind as we move into the future.

The first article discusses how intelligent computers can now “see” human traits with an impressive success rate of 82%. In other words, a computer can, with a good degree of confidence, now tell if you are happy, sad, angry or confused. (By way of comparison, I can only wish I was half as accurate in assessing my wife’s many moods.)

At a minimum this suggests that artifical intelligence will become an even more integral component in a host of daily activities, including customer service, computer games and educational software, than it already is. Imagine, for instance, if an educational computer system could tell if a child was confused about a certain concept in biology and then reexplain it to him or her in a way that the child could understand. This compelling future is on the way because such computers are, in fact, “getting better all the time.” (cont.)

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Redefining Intelligence: MemeBox Interviews Cognitive Historian Dr. James Flynn

April 03 2008 / by memebox / In association with Future
Category: Other   Year: General   Rating: 8

Dr. James Flynn, the cognitive theorist who discovered the steady rise in human IQ scores over the past 100 years (subsequently dubbed the Flynn Effect), is now advancing a compelling new model of intelligence based on the idea that environment significantly impacts the development of intelligence, aka our ability to solve complex problems.

Attributing IQ gains largely to “the rise of the scientific ethos” and abstract thinking ability, as well as a propensity for genes to “match better environments”, Flynn imagines a future in which technological breakthroughs may better our ability to comprehend complex systems, making us a good deal smarter. However, he also cautiously points out that we could be approaching natural limits to critical thinking ability, as the pursuit of decadence increases and humans become “less willing to do cognitive exercise”.

What follows is an illuminating must-read interview with Flynn about his thoughts on the interplay between intelligence and our rapidly changing environment:

MemeBox: What do you do and how is that related to the future?

James Flynn: I am both a historian of cognition and a moral and political philosopher. The latter relates to the future because clear thinking about the good life and the good society is of eternal value. However,my recent book, What is intelligence? (Cambridge), describes the evolution of the American mind in the 20th century. As usual, only if we understand our immediate past can we see the challenges the future holds. In this case, we can make two predictions about the 21st century with some probability. That developing nations will acquire the habits of mind that developed nations have recently acquired. That the task for developed nations like America is to build an enhanced critical ability on the foundation of the IQ gains of the 20th century.

M: Why is the study of intelligence important to us humans?

JF: That we think it is important is undeniable in that we spend huge sums on education trying to train intelligence to be socially useful. We are correct to do so. Intelligence is essentially the capacity to solve problems and a complex industrial society demands that we have certain habits of mind: that we classify the world in a way that promotes a scientific understanding; that we can use logic to deal with hypothetical problems; and that we can deal with novel problems on the spot.

M: What is the relationship between environment and intelligence? (Environment as in the whole system: biology, information, technology, society, the universe.) To what extent can we distinguish between the two?

JF: Until recently, it was thought we could use twin studies to neatly distinguish the effects of genes and environment on IQ and they said that genes were overwhelmingly potent and environment feeble. Then I began to document these huge IQ gains over time that amounted to some 30 to 50 IQ points during the 20th century in America. These showed environmental factors of enormous potency, but that of course created a paradox: how could the twin studies show environment so feeble while IQ gains showed it to be so potent? (Cambridge), describes the evolution of the American mind in the 20th century. As usual, only if we understand our immediate past can we see the challenges the future holds. In this case, we can make two predictions about the 21st century with some probability. That developing nations will acquire the habits of mind that developed nations have recently acquired. That the task for developed nations like America is to build an enhanced critical ability on the foundation of the IQ gains of the 20th century.

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Norvig, Omohundro, Goertzel and Pell Say How They'd Advise Obama's if Appointed U.S. CTO

November 15 2008 / by Alvis Brigis / In association with Future
Category: Technology   Year: General   Rating: 7 Hot

Live-blogging from Convergence 2008.

Moderator Jonas Lamis just asked the distinguished AI Panel what they would advise the new Obama administration to do if, by chance, each was appointed national CTO?

Google’s Peter Norvig: First advice, “Don’t choose me.” (Audience laughs.) Most important advice is to do what the President-Elect is already doing. #1: Believe in reality. The next thing is to invest in R&D. It’s important to re-establish the United States as a leader there. We’ve slipped over the last 8 years or so interms of funding research.

Steve Omohundro: Imprtant to use tech to make better decisions in our society. This is a huge opportunity for aggregating beliefs and desires of voters. Through semantic consensus we could better express nuances. The bailout is the perfect example – 99 to 1 against bailout, ended up passing it. Morphing as we speak… Potential pathways as we move to the future – now a smattering of diff orgs – better to have country-wide analysis of this future pathway.

Ben Goertzel of SIAI:

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Exponential Human IQ Increase, Are We Living It?

March 06 2008 / by Alvis Brigis / In association with Future
Category: Technology   Year: General   Rating: 6

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 exponentially smarter.

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 Law .

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 sets.

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 IA is 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.

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Gadgets that Nag

September 05 2008 / by John Heylin / In association with Future
Category: Technology   Year: General   Rating: 6 Hot

To what extent are we going to let technology run our lives? I can understand wanting the Internet, a cellphone, even a bazillion-inch flat screen TV. But this latest gadget to come on the market, the iPosture, which screams at you whenever you sit in a hunched position, well, it’s just plain silly.

If you thought your parents were nagging you pretty hard at the dinner table, imagine a device that watches your every move (“beep I saw you hide your spinach in the napkin, eat it or no dessert beep“) without the ability to judge when it’s over-stretching its boundaries. Scores of children would grow up hating both the device and their parents, wishing they had received more attention from them, swearing not to raise their kids the same way.

Sure, most people won’t buy these products (at least in the near-future) since it seems so insane and counter-natural, but what about those few who will? For example, parents who think their own parenting techniques are faulty may well wish for a family butler that can help teach their children proper manners. Just imagine if Calvin of Calvin and Hobbes had his own personal assistant, or had been forced to do his homework by an ever-watching guardian…

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How Smart Will Humans Be in 2020?

June 17 2008 / by Alvis Brigis / In association with Future
Category: Culture   Year: 2020   Rating: 5 Hot

How smart will humans become as change accelerates through 2020?

Futurists and sci-fi authors often present scenarios in which humans interact with discrete artificial intelligence (like a robot or software program that talks to us), but far less frequently offer visions of runaway human intelligence enhancement (people made smarter by advances in communication, science & technology) and the resulting cultural and behavioral changes. The most interesting of these I’ve encountered include the rapid-time expanding-shrinking problem-solving networks in Vinge’s Rainbows End, Stephenson’s Metaverse idea, Hesse’s Glass Bead Game concept, Cascio’s participatory Panopticon, the increasingly smart mobs envisioned by Howard Rheingold, some of examples listed in the ASF’s Metaverse Roadmap, and what Richard Florida calls The Rise of the Creative Class . But though each of these are important visions in their own right, I remain a bit surprised at the overall lack of speculation re: what it might be like for humans to gradually bootstrap their intelligence over the coming years.

Given the deluge of brain-enhancing, capability-extending new technologies and ideas soon to be made widely available and affordable, it’d be great to see more thinkers, writers, and bloggers venture into the territory of plausible near-term culture and Intelligence Amplification (IA). Supported by a large body of consistent, powerful growth trends and near-term predictions (check them out on the Future Scanner), a wide range of social scenarios could be generated, many of which would be interesting, entertaining and ultimately valuable to people working to navigate the future (aka, everyone). In particular, I’d love to see/read simulations in which the most plausible near-term intelligence enhancing technologies and software are combined into believable slice-of-life vignettes.

What follows is a list of some powerful trends and technologies (some broad, some specific, many related to information and communication) that forward-thinkers might consider when developing scenarios for how human culture and social cognition will change as we approach 2020:

Drivers of Near-Term Intelligence Growth

WIDENING BANDWIDTH: Faster internet connections, pervasive WiFi – perhaps syndicated through people’s mobile devices.

GROWING GLOBAL INFORMATION: The amount of preserved digital data is growing exponentially as we capture more information about everything around us.

EVOLVING SOCIAL MEDIA: New media structures on a wider and more fluid web are evolving to better organize and process data. Portals like Wikipedia, Digg, Facebook, Medium, Twitter, FriendFeed, and Predictify are just the first in a long wave of innovation that promises to convert massive information into knowledge more efficiently.

VIDEO-to-VIDEO CHAT: Expect most cell phones to enable video-to-video chat by 2012 or so. (cont.)

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How Exactly Will Our System Get Smarter?

July 25 2008 / by Alvis Brigis / In association with Future
Category: Technology   Year: Beyond   Rating: 5

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 smarter?

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 5-10 years.

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 of post)

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 Star Trek, although this would likely be considerably more extreme.

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Will the Singularity Commoditize Intelligence?

October 02 2008 / by Alvis Brigis / In association with Future
Category: Economics   Year: General   Rating: 5

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?

Will accelerating change commoditize intelligence?

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Goertzel: AI to be developed with Open Source and taught through Gaming

October 25 2008 / by John Heylin / In association with Future
Category: Technology   Year: 2013   Rating: 4

At today’s big Singularity Summit researcher Ben Goertzel explained to the audience that achieving a working Artificial Intelligence will need to be accomplished through open source software. This of course is a hotly debated topic in the sense that the government may step in to stop development of such a thing. The idea that anyone in the world could then develop an AI freaks out military and political groups (not to mention a lot of the citizenry).

So how does an AI learn?

Ben says games will be used to teach computers to learn functions. You might have a virtual parrot which you’d teach to speak (the parrot being the virtual depiction of the AI itself), or by putting it through virtual world immersion in an interactive digital environment like Second Life, learn a basic skewed version of human reality.

Teaching Computers Through Gameplay

August 12 2008 / by justinelee / In association with Future
Category: Entertainment   Year: General   Rating: 3

Human computation, the basis of which is discovering what tasks humans can do to make computers smarter, may someday be responsible for making computers not only smarter, but significantly smarter than humans.

Luis von Ahn, a Computer Science professor at Carnegie Mellon University, and the inventor of the prevalent internet tool CAPTCHA, has made it his life to study human computation.

Human computation has many applications. For example, computers aren’t very good at identifying what appears in an image, but humans are. To make online image searches more accurate, von Ahn developed the ESP game, which led to the creation of Google’s Image Labeler, and finally the compilation of five different games: Games With A Purpose (

The model of game play works well. The games are fun, foster bonds and competition, and are free. These are all qualities that have attracted high numbers of players – thus, creating a strong effort to make not only image searches more durable, but also bring computers closer to thinking like humans.

The question is, when will all our game playing lead to a smarter computer that no longer needs our help?

In June 2006, von Ahn was invited to the Google campus to give a TechTalk lecture on human computation and brought up some interesting points about the bond and tension between humans and machines:

At one point von Ahn jokes that the interactions he’s created through GWAP could lead to a world similar to the one depicted in The Matrix; that is, one in which machines rule the universe and generate power from human brains.

Although his speculation appeared light-hearted, when I ask von Ahn what he thinks now, he asserts: “I completely believe computers will become every bit as intelligent as humans, possibly even more intelligent. I don’t see why not: the brain is a machine, we just don’t understand how it works yet.”

When will computers be able to think like humans?

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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.

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