Daniel Lemire's blog

, 2 min read

On human intelligence… a perspective from computer science

Whenever I read social scientists, there is often, implicit in the background, the concept of “intelligence” as a well defined quantity. I have some amount of intelligence. Maybe you have a bit more.

But what does computer science have to say about any of this? That is, what is this “intelligence” we are talking about?

  • Except for storage capabilities (memory) and speed, all hardware is equivalent. Though I don’t know much about biology, I doubt that any brain runs at twice the speed of another brain. We are left with memory as a constraint. However, what computer science tells us is that you can always extend your memory with external support (in this case, use a pen and paper, or just Google) and all it might do is slow you down. Thus, it would seem that the main difference between individuals ought to be speed: some people may learn faster than others, or execute some tasks faster.- There can be huge differences in software, but software can be upgraded.

If one human being can do something intellectually, then most other human beings can also do it, albeit more slowly. They may need more tools, and they may require more time… but that is all. Yet, given that we have more sophisticated tools with each year that passes, I would expect that the difference in “human intelligence”, whatever it is, ought to diminish in important with time. I expect that what sets people apart is not this ill-defined intelligence, but rather pure grit. If you want to do something, but you apparently lack the “intelligence” to do it, then it may simply be a matter of finding or building the right tools.

In some sense, this is what software is all about: extending our intelligence.

The idea that one could measure my “intelligence” by locking me up in a room and having me write a test with pen and paper is ludicrous. As I wrote this blog post, I used a dozen sophisticated pieces of software, including Wikipedia and Google Scholar. Where does “my” intelligence ends and where do the tools start? There is no line. What you perceive as the result of “my” intelligence is the result of an aggregate of hardware and software where the genetics of my brain are just one of many ingredients.

Someone with a gigantic memory in 1900 could certainly be a much better scholar. However, in the day and age of Google Scholar, memorizing thousands of quotes and references is much less of an advantage. You may work faster if you don’t need to constantly look up information online. However, as Google and its competitors get better, the scholar with a gigantic memory eventually loses out to someone who relies more on computers… the same way Chess players lost to computers.

To be a scholar in year 1500, you need to have a superb brain and superb education. In 2014, almost anyone can become a scholar… engage in deep intellectual debates, write compelling essays…

Classifying kids as talented or not talented is a gigantic failure of imagination. Software technology has the potential to turn the kid who couldn’t figure out fractions into someone who can do advanced science.