Saturday, September 24, 2005

what's intelligence worth? what kind of intelligence?

I'm reading Enough by Bill McKibben.

He's talking about genetic manipulation of intelligence. Changing people's genes to give them thirty or forty more "points" (whatever those are worth). I don't think he understands the strangeness of the Singularity. Even as he conceives that, the landscape of intelligence is shifting underneath him.

I realized yesterday while I was in the bookstore that the attitude which allows for deep integration with computer intelligence is a certain sort of passivity. You just sort of allow yourself to drift; let the computer take over more of the driving. As computers come to contain more of the total intelligence of this planet, the humans that will succeed will be less & less those that rely upon their own capacities and more & more those who are able to integrate their capacity with larger systems.

For instance, when I was growing up I thought that I was really "smart" because I could add a lot of numbers well in my head. Now, of course, being integrated with a calculator gives you a calculating ability that no pretransformation human could possibly possess. The human talent which allows one to calculate quickly has thus fundamentally changed. It used to be a difficult internal task; most of the difficulty is holding a large number of digits in mind. Now the task is that of quickly and accurately pressing the buttons that interpret the task for a very focused computer intelligence (and, perhaps even more tellingly, the knack or strange inclination of carrying a calculator around in one's pocket).

That's not even any sort of end-state. The latest transformation that I find very interesting of the task of calculating is that you can now ask the questions in plain text to Google. This is how I tend to calculate things around the house; I treat Google like the mythical Computer in old science fiction videos. Computer, what's the square root of 1,874,875? I'm looking forward to having The Computer actually be listening to our voices all the time, ready to provide answers. You'll literally say the computer's name-- which could be "Computer," or maybe "Billybob"-- and then request information, which it will immediately provide via the closest speaker or screen.

Conventional notions of intelligence break down completely in this environment. The "smartness" of being able to calculate numbers in your head would save you only the trouble of vocalizing the equation. The "smartness" of having memorized all of the State Capitals would save you mere seconds in the unlikely event that you needed to know one. This is, of course, still just the beginning. The Computer can already answer simple factual questions, if posed in the form of a string of text; it will increasingly be able to answer more abstract questions. Computer intelligence is for real; meat intelligence was just version 1.0.

The same or similar creepy ethical questions apply to human-computer integration that apply to genetic engineering of human intelligence-- who has access to the abilities? who will benefit?-- but there are substantial differences as well. One difference is that there's no waiting for new generations (except to the extent that children integrate with new technologies more fully than adults). The whole thing can take place not over the next century or two, but over the next decade, as we plunge right straight fucking into the heart of the Singularity, before hardly anyone even notices.



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