The Singularity Q&A

Q: Why are the thoughts of greater intelligence so hard to imagine?

A: Nobody today has ever had any experience with greater-than-human intelligence.  The natural variation in human genetics means that some people are a bit smarter than others, but, by definition, no human has ever been smarter-than-human.  The range between a "slow" human and a human genius may seem like a lot to us, but is probably just a very small slice of the total range of intelligence possible in our universe.

One might imagine that the smartest person who ever lived had an IQ of 250. (Odds are good this person was a hunter-gatherer or subsistence farmer and few people noticed.) When technology enables minds in our corner of the galaxy to exceed human limitations, the highest IQ scores could easily fly past 300 and right off the charts.  How would you recognize or classify a score of 30,000?

IQ tests don't really work that way, but the near future could see minds exceeding traditional limitations with astounding flair.  A million extra Einstein-level geniuses would be enough to change the world, but one mind a million times smarter than Einstein could remake it entirely.  Later questions deal more particularly with how this phenomenal level of intelligence will be achieved and what it might be capable of, but for now it will be useful to look at some possible analogies for relating to minds that are superintelligent -- clearly exceeding human mental capacity in every sense.

Unfortunately, the best analogies aren't very good.  It is sometimes said that superintelligence will be to humans as humans are to ants -- and since ants could never comprehend human activity, humans can expect the same bafflement in the presence of superintelligence.   But, while this analogy may work as a comparison where brain size is the trait being measured, it ignores the fundamentally different scale of human thought.  Human brains are not in the business of processing a huge number of ant-sized thoughts.  We are wired differently, and as a consequence think in ways that are far more sophisticated than even those of animals like whales or elephants, whose brains are much larger than our own.

This is not to say, however, that a superintelligence could not likewise have mental features operating on planes inaccessible to us; possibilites come to mind readily, such as thinking in extra dimensions or with huge numbers of simultaneous, overlapping thoughts.  Imagine a symphony, written by a superintelligence, composed for 800 different instruments that make their "music" in microwave radiation.  Imagine that this symphony is created and performed in less than a second, and, if interpreted as a sufficiently large protein molecule, produces working blueprints for a foot-powered machine that turns straw into gold.  You could not follow, let alone "hear" such a symphony -- and you certainly couldn't appreciate it.  This is but a small taste of why greater-than-human intelligence makes life beyond the Singularity so hard to imagine. Who can say what a superintelligence might achieve when it decides to work on something "important"?

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