The Singularity Q&A

Q: What are some specific aspects of intelligence that could be improved upon?

A: Here are some of the more important ones:

Reliability.  What if your mind was immune to mental illness, Freudian slips, senility, chemical toxins, oxygen deprivation, or cranial trauma? What if mental down-time maintenance (sleep) didn't require nearly a third of your day? 

Concentration.  How many consecutive hours can you spend reading a textbook before it becomes harder and harder to understand the words?  How many times during this period will your thoughts be interrupted by a desire for food, an urge to visit the restroom, spontaneous planning of weekend activities, or speculation on the feelings and whereabouts of some romantic interest?

Speed.  Imagine, for a moment, that your mind was accelerated so greatly that time seemed to pass a million times more slowly.  You would think more than a century's worth of thoughts in what, to everyone else, would seem like an hour, and would therefore be considered a phenomenal genius.  What kinds of ideas and problems could you work through if every day gave you millennia to think about them? With more than 30 hours between the beats of a hummingbird's wings, how hard would it be to make difficult decisions in a timely manner?  (Incidentally, the transistors in your computer already operate millions of times faster than the neurons in your brain -- although they are very different structures and the transistors are, for the time being, vastly outnumbered.)

Memory.  What if you had videographic memory?  What if this perfect visual recall extended to your other senses, your thoughts, and your emotions, such that you could fully relive any moment from your past?  Naturally, this would take a great deal of memory space, in some form or other, which is part of the reason our brains use abstraction to remember key characteristics of experiences rather than the actual details.  (Have you ever had an argument with someone about the phrasing of a line in a movie or television show?  Were you ever shocked to find out that they were right and you were wrong?)  What if you could choose the degree of abstraction you wanted to use when recording your memories, to save space or details as desired?  What if you had vast memory capacity on top of this?

Communication.  Have you ever had to conclude the telling of a humorous anecdote with the apology, "I guess you had to be there?"  Have you ever drawn a map on a napkin because you couldn't explain how to get from point A to point B?  What if there were a way for you to simply share portions of your knowledge and memory with others, allowing them to "be there" for your anecdotes and borrow your navigational know-how?  What if you and (and those around you) were telepathic, or could meaningfully express a lifetime of knowledge with a simple phrase?

Precision -- Can you tell me how many purple pixels (the tiny squares) are in this image?  Can you even decide exactly which pixels are purple in order to begin counting? Would another reader agree with your number?  If you and another reader could precisely identify the wavelength of light produced by each pixel, you might be able to reach an agreement on the precise boundaries of the color purple and arrive at the same count.  But you can't, at least not without special tools.  Neither are you likely to recognize the exact tone of a solitary musical note (unless you have perfect pitch), or be able to say exactly how many milligrams your keyboard weighs.  But what if you had the equivalent of perfect pitch for all your senses, and could use this precise data to make accurate conclusions -- such as the specific color that would result from the combination of the lower left and upper rightmost pixels?  (Among other things, you might be able to see the word I hid in this image using a finer version of the tool I used to create the cube.)

Abstraction.  Speaking of the cube, there is, of course, no three dimensional, six-sided object on your computer screen -- only several hundred pixels that appear, on average, to be closer in color to each other than to the thousands of others around them.  Abstraction, in the broadest sense, is the ability to work with concepts in our minds, independent of physical reality.  Seeing the particular pattern of pixels in this image triggered the idea of a cube, an object that does not actually exist on the flat surface of your monitor.  Nor does a shoe, although the word "shoe" is sufficient to conjure up some idea of a shoe in your mind -- a flexible concept that will change and become more detailed as I tell you that it is an awkward and unfashionable shoe.  This shoe, in the confines of your mind, may proceed to sing a a latin ballad, even though shoes have probably never done this in your actual experience.

But what if your abstraction abilities were expanded?  What if you could look at the scattered pieces of a 5,000-piece jigsaw puzzle and carefully work out the whole thing out without ever picking up a piece?  What if you could read the diaries of 5,000 interacting people and mentally keep track of who is connected to who?

Self-Reconfiguration.  In a sense, both of these tasks are very simple if you have the physical or mental space to work them out, since they are merely enormous chains of very simple procedures: checking a piece to see if it fits another, drawing a line between Dick and Jane.  But without some other modifications to the way you think they could still prove very laborious.  While you could easily solve a 4-piece puzzle in your mind, and keep track of smaller webs of relationships easily, you have no specialized mental hardware for complex puzzles or huge webs.  But you do have powerful specialized hardware for shape recognition, which is why you immediately saw a cube in the speckled image and did not have to resort to checking the color of each individual pixel against those around it. 

This type of specialized hardware is known as a modality.  If you had a jigsaw modality, you might "see" what the completed puzzle would look like anytime you saw a bunch of scattered jigsaw pieces.  If you had a more robust relationship-tracking modality, you could easily recognize the broader currents of lies and loyalties flowing through a population of thousands.  What if you could reconfigure your mind at will to create modalities for whatever tasks you were performing?  What if you could conjure up a math modality whenever you needed to solve a complicated equation, thereby seeing the answer as obvious as the cube in the image?  What if you could set up modalities for molecular biology or computer programming code, knowing the steps it would take to create a working vaccine or program as instinctively as you would be able to draw a figure recognizable as a cube... or a singing shoe?

What if you had a mind that was improved in all of the ways mentioned on this page? 

What if you had a mind that was improved in all of the ways that you might think of if your mind had all of the improvements mentioned on this page?

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