Podcast Radio Show – Episode #2: The Limits of Human Knowledge and The Singularity

Science Gone Wild with William M Briggs
Science Gone Wild with William M Briggs
Podcast Radio Show - Episode #2: The Limits of Human Knowledge and The Singularity


On today’s show:

Update 3 Oct: The show appears to be available on iTunes. Search Podcasts for “Briggs” under “Title.” If anybody has difficulties downloading, please let me know.

Men’s Fashion Ties are meant to be worn with a jacket and not without. They provide the necessary thickness which is missing when a jacket is buttoned. Modern ties are too long. Never, ever tie a sweater around your neck. Car alarms are an unnecessary evil.

The limits of human knowledge Will humanity reach an intellectual plateau or will there come a singularity? I argue the former. Every person has a limit, and most people in the Western world are near theirs. The average all-humans IQ will increase, but only until most cultures are roughly energy sufficient. Additionally, as rampant leisureliness sets in, people do less and have fewer children. Conclusion: mankind will top out in a couple of hundred years; the period of rapid technological improvement will peter out and the era in which we live will come to be seen as strange and unusual.

See the following graph for an explanation:

IQ through time

More on the Michigan woman who watched her neighbor’s kids A republican state politician wants to pass a new law which allows people their basic freedom. This is admirable, but ridiculous. He should have proposed dismantling the old law and defunding the agency responsible. We need less government, not more.

Overall Haven’t reached the point where the actual show sounds like the voices in my head, but it’s better. It’s still 30 minutes and meant to be downloaded. I’m thinking about how to work in something shorter. Comments very welcome (email, too: matt@wmbriggs.com).

(right click here to download)


  1. DAV

    I haven’t listened to the podcast yet but I’m curious how you combined technological and intellectual abilities. Technology took off after harnessing steam power and the Machine Age, Many of the tools and methods used by the Romans, Greeks and earlier for construction and other applications suddenly became more feasible for widespread use. It’s not really clear how much different the technologies really are. It was basically just a lot more of the same. Things got even better when a practical method of transmitting steam power over long distances came into use (AC electricity and, yes, steam is not the only way of generating it).

    Are you equating technological advance with intellectual advance? IMO, the increase of technology seems to have made people dumber (maybe it’s just my advancing age, who knows?)

  2. DAV

    Re: Fashion

    I went to prep school (hmm .. I had typed perp school — a slip of the old Freud?) where jacket and tie were required. The one advantage of a jacket is more pockets. It’s a great feature in places like London which always struck me as chilly but I now seem to live in a mostly oppressive humid environment. I don’t miss the jacket.

    If you’re going to tie one on, I suggest whiskey instead of satin.

    It would be nice if your heady voices would at least pick related subjects.

  3. Ron C

    Your chart describes something immeasurable with scales that are meaningless. You trying to get a MBA or something? 😉

  4. DAV

    Ron G,
    Can’t answer for Briggs but Time is a meaningless concept solely on my charge sheets. In that light, Briggs only gets partial credit toward an MBA. He should have used something like Occupational Ergonomic Measure.

  5. Is the podcast available through iTunes? If so, under what name?

  6. Luis Dias

    I’m really enjoying these podcasts, mr Briggs. Excellent 25+ minutes. I’m also eagerly awaiting for discussing Searle et al, and may I intrude and recommend Dennett’s thoughts on those points. Personally speaking, I really despise Searle’s “Chinese Room” experiment. I’m a very deep phenomenologist and Kantian at this. If you can’t decide whether you are upon a sentient intelligent being or not, then you are upon a sentient being, because for all things considered, you should treat “it” as such. I mean, for pragmatical purposes he or it behaves as a sentient being. Another thought is, why do we consider fellow human beings as sentient, if we don’t have enough evidence to “prove” that? And yet we do. Same thing, exactly.

    Go check some Dennett’s videos on this, I think on Youtube. He’s quite clear on this subject and, I think, check mates Searle’s views on this stuff, and please don’t even mention the role that “Quantum Mechanics” has played on Searle philosophy, I think that he’s completely senile at that point, Deepak Chopra style.

    Now, more on topic.

    I see your point about the plateau, but I’d disagree, and I make a reference on Darwin’s evolution idea. What’s the core of that idea? The core is, the generations that get passed are the ones whose parents survived and cared for them. In technology and intelligence, and maybe a hybrid of those, what will survive? The smartest, more intelligent, quicker, etc. Even if there’s a general tendency to “flat line”, that only means that the western culture will be superseeded by more aggressive ones. Or it will reinvent itself based on its most aggressive individuals’ vision. Just as it is right now.

    I think Moore will be more relevant than ever before, in this century. Will it lead us to infinity? Well, I’d bet no. I agree that many stuff being said out there is crazy, but I’ve also seen crazy things, unbelievable things I thought impossible just 5 years ago.

    See this TED video. Quite eye-opener.


  7. Briggs


    Is it even possible to think of a more important topic than men’s neckwear? Especially considering how we all have to watch so many loose ties dangling? I think we both know the answer.


    It is. It’s under “William M. Briggs”, or should be. I don’t have iTunes on my Linux box, but I’ll double check later to make sure it’s there. It was last week.

    Ron C,

    I never said anything bad about you. Them’s fightin’ words.

    It’s meant to be a cartoon. Think of the y-axis as the percent possible average human IQ. Environmental effects, particularly pre-birth to adolescence, will boost this for a segment of the Earth.

    Or you might consider that this is the percent of possible technological capacity. Sure, we’ve come a long way, and over a short time, but what is it that guarantees we will continue the same rapid pace? I mean, really guarantees?

    You can argue, “We’ve improved from the past” but this has only been true for, say, ~100 years (order of magnitude). For millennium, we’ve been roughly static. Plus, what do you think of the low (anti-Darwinian?) birth-rate paradox argument?

  8. Luis Dias

    Plus, what do you think of the low (anti-Darwinian?) birth-rate paradox argument?

    Why do you say it’s “anti-darwinian”? There’s no purpose on evolution. But I have a great analogy that will help you. Think of evolution and the “inevitability” of evolution as thermodynamics and the usual arrow of time problem.

    What stops two differing similar gases to differentiate themselves, to “undilute”, to separate themselves over time? Why does it always happen the same direction, if all the single particles behave simmetrically in time, like balls of snooker? If they behave simettrically, wouldn’t it be possible for them to behave exactly the other way around?

    The key behind thermodynamics and the second law is that it is indeed possible, but it is a matter of probability. So while there’s nothing in the basics that prevents the gases to behave “the other way around”, they (mostly) always behave the same way.

    In evolution, same thing. While nothing prevents human beings and our society to decay in productivity, intelligence and stopping Moore’s law, it will only take a handful of people to discover something new to continue making breakthroughs. As long as there are more stuff to be found, and as long as we don’t decay to effin’ 2nd middle ages, we will go on exponentially.

    Well, of course, it’s a belief, but it has as much empirical evidence as your own ;).

  9. Briggs


    Excellent point. “Anti” only in the sense that we might, as we advance technologically, underbreeding ourselves to extinction.

    Say, that reminds me of as Asimov book. Caves of Steel perhaps? Or another in the same series, maybe Robots of Dawn. A planet had evolved to the point where any human-to-human contact was seen as disgusting. I don’t have time to refresh my memory here. Anybody else remember it?

  10. Joy

    What a miserable bunch!
    Dav, you lived in London?
    Luis, The middle ages were great for their time.
    I’m nowhere near my 90 percent yet. I have kept plenty in hand. Physio stretches all the parts of the brain at once, it seems, but some parts have more elastic than others. My elastic has far to go.
    Others, on the other hand, are clearly near the edge.
    Any chance of opening the window so we can hear the sound affects? It sounds like you’re in a cupboard. No sirens, alarms, engine sounds. No guns either!

  11. Is it even possible to think of a more important topic than men’s neckwear?

    Yes. More important topics include: women’s footwear, the history of the buttons and the best way to turn a sock heel when knitting.

  12. JH

    This episode is enjoyable and better in every way.

    Its’ hard to imagine that a robot will ever develop into something other than it’s programmed to be. However, I fear that some of the technology advancements could conceivably (if not already) cause the decline in our cognitive ability, a quality of human beings.

    A horizontal asymptote is cleverly drawn at 100% in the graph! It cannot be wrong. The questions are: what is our 100% tech and intellectual ability? Is the sky our limit? Will mankind ever reach that point? My curve is a smoothed step function consisting of several steps with each step caused by a major breakthrough. Who knows? There is a Tim Berners-Lee growing up somewhere. I’d loved to be amazed by more breakthroughs in medicine, genetic, nanotech, information technologies, robotics technologies and other areas.

    Our big government and laws that make common sense uncommon: Well, I like my member of Congress, but the rest can surely be thrown of office.

    I miss Barney the Purple Dinosaur.

  13. a jones


    As one who had to wear a tailcoat at school I can assure you that in chilly weather the Eton jacket is not known as a bum freezer for nothing. And when close to the fire one can lift the tails to warm one’s behind, and since the tails of the coat also have internal pockets one can stuff them full of useful things. They even make a convenient cushion when sitting on a hard wooden bench provided you take care that some mischievous person behind you doesn’t try to tie them down around the back of the bench.

    As to your suggestion that somehow there must be a limit to people’s knowledge and that therefore people must eventually, as it were, hold all the knowedge they can contain and advance no further: this caused me much puzzlement when I was young.

    In that I think I was influenced by the comment made by Sherlock Holmes to Dr. Watson when the latter discovered he did not know the earth went round the sun: to the effect that a human brain can only hold so much information and therefore he avoided collecting that which he did not need because it might crowd out that which he did.

    It was also a time when the loss of the Victorian ‘Man of Parts’, the generalist who knew about everything, was much lamented because he had been replaced by the specialist who knew more and more about less and less.

    And the argument you advance was certainly current, if not orthodox. To suggest as I did that an ancient Roman somehow magically whisked forward in time would not have found it very difficult to adapt to our modern society was ridiculed. We, I was told, had a far broader view of the world whereas he, being backward and ignorant of modern liberal viewpoints, would find it impossible to comprehend.

    I don’t think so. Indeed I didn’t think so then and don’t now, although I have pondered on these things, and indeed disputed them, on and off for much of my life.

    It seems to me that modern human societies don’t change very much so that if our time traveller went back to, let us say, ancient Eygpt, even though he thought by the standards of his own culture, Eygptian ways strange, he would find them comprehensible and indeed could settle there. And vice versa.

    Nor would I think he would find the technology, elementary as it might be to his eyes, impractical: far from it. And I doubt given the limits on resources and materials he could much improve on it: he would neither have the tools nor materials nor indeed the tools to make the tools.

    Nor indeed if he were an ancient from wherever would he find our modern technology baffling, he would quickly learn that the electric light is a wonder that can be controlled by the flick of a switch. And not bother himself further.

    It seems to me that it is the written compilation of knowledge that is important, and to do that one must be able to read and write.

    Not as simple as you might suppose.

    If you were transported to medieval England you would not be able to read or write either the Norman French or the Middle English used then, though you might make a fair stab at the latter. Not that it would tell you much. You certainly would not know the heraldic code which distinguished not only the knight, his coat of arms, but his house from another. Knowing all that would take quite a lot of brain power.

    As would remembering the areas of land, the weights and measures, the coinage, such as it was and all the lore of herbal remedies and all the other the necessities of life.

    But with written records you don’t need a feat of memory because you can look it up.

    And you don’t need any of that old stuff today. You have other things to occupy your mind.

    Yet just like a crane a book is a machine but of the mind. As is the abacus. We just have much better books and abaci today.

    You do not need how these wonderful machines work only how to use them.

    And as importantly we can and do steadily simplify the very basic knowledge that we have discovered: and condense and explain it in a few lines, so that then know all that you need to know. And if you wish to inquire further the knowledge is there.

    What people imagine is that technology is new and what they forget is that it is as old as human civilisation itself, we just develop it as we can and must to suit our needs.

    And technology is all about these wonderful machines whether it is a process to make steel, a system of accounting or a study in economics. And it is all written down so we can consult and learn from the past. And build upon what our forefathers knew and what we are learning today.

    And so invent new machines to help us.

    You do not need an improved brain to do that: we have been very successful at doing it in a big way since the onset of the Holocene. So why change a winning formula?

    Sorry to have gone on at such length.

    Kindest Regards.

    But in the end I must disagree with you. Every age, time and culture has it’s philosphical ifashions,

  14. Luis Dias

    Say, that reminds me of as Asimov book. Caves of Steel perhaps? Or another in the same series, maybe Robots of Dawn. A planet had evolved to the point where any human-to-human contact was seen as disgusting. I don’t have time to refresh my memory here. Anybody else remember it?

    I do :D. Caves of Steel talked about a city that was completely “interior”, barren from the outside Earth. Human to human was not seen as disgusting, but you could say you’d hate the city landscape of “Caves of Steel”, whose title is very telling. One thing that many people don’t know however, is that Asimov himself hated the outside. He preferred rooms without windows to those with them. So CoS is not about a dystopia, much to the opposite, it was his own wet sci-fi dream ;).

    But I see your point. As George Carlin once said, we could be a “cul-de-sac”, one more evolutionary dead-end. But there’s something special about man, isn’t there? One can only hope.

    There’s also another very bright story that speaks about “infinity” and the inevitability of the “end”, by Asimov too. “The Last Question”. Look it up, I think you’ll find it in the web and if not, buy one of his short stories’ books, it is on one of them. The question is about reversing Entropy, quite poetic…. for an atheist ;).

  15. Luis Dias

    philosophical ifashions

    I ROFLed at that typo!

  16. Rich

    It’s not “Caves of Steel”, it’s “Naked Sun” where people avoid contact.

    The core is, the generations that get passed are the ones whose parents survived and cared for them. In technology and intelligence, and maybe a hybrid of those, what will survive? The smartest, more intelligent, quicker, etc. – this is not necessarily true. You may believe that smarter, more intelligent people will survive but it’s not a given. Successful breeding is the only variable of interest though I aware that that amounts to a tautology in context.

    And my OT contribution: Mr Briggs, I saw this and thought immediately of you: http://www.cipfasocialresearch.net/ Note the “confidence Interval Calculator” at bottom left. The confidence level is pegged at 95% and “you shouldn’t change” it.

  17. DAV

    yes I lived in London for about 6 months (mid Spring through Autumn) many years ago. I travelled back and forth periodically but spent most of my time there. I stayed somewhere along the A5. Swiss Cottage, I think.

    Been a long time since I read Asimov’s robotic books. In “Naked Sun” there was still marriage IIRC . Can’t remember how they were supposed to reproduce.

  18. Another recommendation, I suggest you watch “Idiocracy”. A wonderfully McClintock-esque movie describing the pitfal of man in regards to “enlightened” people having less children.

  19. DAV

    Speaking of robotic evolution: the fall issue of AI Magazine from AAAI is mostly devoted to computational creativity. Cover reads, “Computational Creativity: Coming of Age” Titles include:

    Computer Models of Creativity
    YQX Plays Chopin
    Computational Approaches to Storytelling and Creativity
    Can Computers Create Humor?

    The YQX article opens: “Consider the following challenge: A computer program is to play two piano pieces that it has never seen before in an ‘expressive’ way (i.e., by shaping tempo, timing, dynamics and articulation in such a way that the performance sounds ‘musical’ or ‘human’).” The article describes :The Core of YQX: A Simple Bayesian Model”

    Interesting stuff.

    The journal may be available to online to non-members though probably at a price.

  20. Andrew

    So, if I understand you correctly, you believe that knowledge grows logistically, rather than exponentially?

  21. Candy

    What a brilliant speech! Love it a lot. You have a special voice. BTW, I really appreciate and enjoy your responses to all my emails and comments. You are such a gentleman, dear.

  22. DAV


    The logistic is closer to how nature generally works in the presence of limiting factors. If there is an upper limit, it likely will be approached asymptotically. Exponential growth implies rapid increase without limit. That seems unreasonable. Things in nature that exhibit exponential response (nuclear chain reaction, e.g.) usually break at some point.

  23. Andrew

    I’m not sure I see there being a ceiling on knowledge in any practical sense. I can imagine the rate at which we attain it slowing dramatically, but I doubt that it will asymptotically approach some absolute limit.

  24. George

    The Solarians reproduces by artificial insemination, I believe, and the offspring were quickly isolated from the mothers and brought up by robots. People never met, they only “viewed” live holograms of each other – consequently they had the best holographic technology around, and to some extent the most advanced robots I think.

    In a later book, Solaria is revisited and at that point the residents have evolved to become androgenous, avoiding the need for any contact whatsoever.

    30 minutes initially seems rather long, but when you listen to it it flies past. More please. 🙂

  25. Luis Dias

    this is not necessarily true. You may believe that smarter, more intelligent people will survive but it’s not a given.

    You missed the “it” in my sentence. I was not referring to people at this point, but to things, to strategies, to computers, etc. Evolution stopped being a determinant at the speed we are evolving right now.

  26. Briggs


    Some of us might still be evolving (but, recalling that this natural stress doesn’t have a positive or negative connotation, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a good thing.) I’m reminded of a Kurt Vonnegut book where mankind evolves thick hair and smaller brains in adaptation to a changed Earth. Anybody watching “The View” would argue this is well under way.


    Good memory! And thanks.


    Well, if there’s a practical ceiling on each of us, why not a cumulative ceiling? How can the group be more than its parts? There would have to be something above the group to organize the knowledge from the individuals. DAV did a good job summarizing the growth curve.


    I blush (but this matches my dark red flowery necktie; not hand knitted, Lucia—sorry).


    The original Kornbluth short story “Marching Morons” is also excellent.


    That link is fantastic. “Here’s the lever that’ll change the machine. Never touch it!”


    Thank you.

    a jones,

    Thanks very much. Yes, I’m with you against the idea that our forebearers were not as brainy as we because they wouldn’t understand how to operate the DVD. Nor could they possibly had as much enlightened moral sense as we, since most of them ate their babies.

    Sorry if I missed somebody! Been a tad busy.

  27. Briggs


    Thanks, and thank you for the clip!

  28. George

    Doesn’t the incompleteness theorem imply somehow that no sentient being beyond a certain complexity can fully comprehend its own mind? By extension, it can’t comprehend any more complex mind. So any AI we make will only be capable of comprehending simpler AIs than itself.

    The only hope for breaking the loop is unintelligent design, i.e. random evolution. Anything else requires something to comprehend something more intellectually complex than itself.

  29. a jones

    I would think a sentient being would indeed need a certain complexity to comprehend it’s own mind. I also think that human beings are not sufficiently complex to comprehend their own minds, beyond having a vague idea that they have possibly got one.

    But it is a pretty vapid idea, humans have not yet worked out what having a mind means although various mystics and such like claim to offer a path to enlightenment in this.

    In that they have stumbled upon a great truth although they too hardly know it, in humans at least to a great extent the mind is the body and the body is the mind, the two are inseparable. Have you not noticed how long it takes for brain and body to meld? why do you think teenagers are clumsy? they are still growing into their bodies and learning to control them. And if you doubt the body’s ability to control the mind try going without liquids for a day or two.

    Moreover bodies are designed to do things like walking and so on and don’t need instructions on how to do it. An elegant experiment of a few years ago, Mr. Fancy Pants, showed that a pair of mechanical legs joined at the hip and jointed as human legs and feet are could happily walk down an incline perfectly well without falling over. No brain or muscles needed.

    The converse of that is the mischievous or wandering hand, when for what ever reason, usually a stroke, all conscious control of the arm and hand are lost it does not necessarily stop the hand from wandering around on it’s own and grasping things. Probably because that is what hands do.

    So to suggest that your mind is somehow separate from your body is wrong, much may go in your cranium but much else is done at lower levels in the body itself, from your eye which automatically reacts to light and shadow to your feet which react to the ground on which you stand. And it is all that which goes to make you a unique, an individual.

    But as individual as you may imagine yourself to be, and you are, you are also still a human being and one amongst a multitude like you. It is quite true that you could survive by yourself without other human contact, as people from anchorites to Defoe’s mythical Robinson Crusoe have done before and will again. But humans are highly social and cooperative animals who do best in groups not least because it allows them to specialise: a point Defoe made.

    We are only really beginning to learn about this and to discover that economics and evolution are the reverse sides of the same coin. Strange but true. As co-operative groups of individuals grow in size so they can specialise so the group benefits thereby but to do that they also need to trade their skills within the group so that all share in the benefit. Evolution describes how these groups evolve into a niche, economics how they must co-operate to best exploit the opportunity. Lots of creatures do this but by far the most successful is homo sapiens: who has been so successful that he is still trying to work out how he did it. Not a problem for meerkats I imagine.

    So the idea that you could somehow have a disembodied intellect, a perfect and complex mind complete in itself seems to me absurd. How would it think? how would it know? how could it feel or sense? and how could it communicate? For for any of these it would need some kind of body whether as in Sci Fi just a loudspeaker and a televisions camera, or soething else. But whatever the devices, even such simple ones, constrain it both in what it can discover and what it can do.

    But the real secret of of homo sapiens’ success is his wonderful machines that record knowledge so that future generations do not need to learn the same lessons over and over. And what nobody seems prepared to discuss beyond platitudes is that the future is the increasing merger of man and machine so that the machine can serve man better.

    Yet it is happening almost unoticed. When I was young information resided in books which you had to have access to so you could then laboriously look things up. Today I type into my keyboard and T’Intenet and the World Wide Web bring me what I need. Even if I am on the move my mobile phone can find what I need at the touch of a button.

    But why touch a button?

    Battlefield troops with their one eye visor can summon up information literally in the blink of an eye. It is not particularly convenient and you need to learn how to use it, but then when you were small you needed to learn how to use your arms and legs too.

    Crude as it may be the technology already exists to integrate man and his knowledge machine far more closely than it is today. And if it were so done in infancy then the child would learn as it grew up how to command the machine as though it were part of its own body without even thinking about it. And what a machine! that could provide any information, communicate instantly across the globe and so on.

    Yet would we be any less human for having such a machine at our command? I doubt it very much.

    Yet even though I personally imagine it will happen, if not in my lifetime, it seems so repugant to so many people that any debate on the matter goes by the board. It is ignored even as it is gradually happening.

    Sorry for wittering on Mr. Briggs and if I have bored everyone to tears I apologise. But it seems to me there are things that need to be said even if everyone knows them already.

    Kindest Regards

  30. Joy

    You were nearLords; but you should try London now! With global warming, we don’t need to wear coats in the winter any more.
    A Jones,
    I value your comments and read all carefully even the ones I don’t understand. You have not borred me to tears, you make one of the best points.

    On the point about our ancesters and on the issue of AI which seems to me so obvious as to be surprising that anyone would believe we will ever be superceeded by a ‘scentient’ machine. Some very clever minds believe it.

    On the body mind connection, I don’t know what your field is but in medicine now the old idea of body and mind was thrown out a while ago. Anyone working with human beings and their function would know and appreciate how far away we are from understanding some very basic body functions, let alone replicating higher ones. There are still consultants and doctors that haven’t caught on yet.

    There is an arrogance in people that I find worrying when it comes to the belief that we understand the human brain. Perhaps reading scientific articles in journals and scifi magazines gives a false sense of security to some people who like to think that we’ll have it all worked out in the fullness of time. There’s nothing wrong withdreaming, we have to get there in the end, a kind of inevitability, but the arrogance that we can work out what we will know in the future by what we know now brings to mind a famous quote
    “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”
    I suppose he was being whitty, but I think there’s a deep and important message there.

    On the stroke, hands don’t wander they are either flaccid or in the spastic pattern (faetal position) depending upon the stage and density of the stroke. If they wander it’s because there’s dammage to a different part of the brain. Interesting and upsetting are the patients who are affected in speech centres where clearly different types of dysfunction develop depending upon the part affected. Inappropriate behaviour and unabashed speech can come from dammage to a very specific part of the brain. Seeming to impluy that our brains can be fragmented in order to understand them, like a computer, however it’s worse than this because there is so much interplay in the brain that it can be likened to an orchestra. Easily as complex as trying to understand all of the aspects of climate. The brain problem is akin to the universe problem, and we won’t understand that either, ever. Involentary movements are less mysterious. Still, we will have folks writing models on their computers with two dimentionality masquerading as more to try and prove that omnipotence is only a matter of time.
    Hope that made sense

  31. Joy

    A Jones,
    I just said some of the same things as you! Sorry. I thought my thought was so original! Bernie will tell you I do this to him all the time.
    I also meant to say thank you for putting the rightclick on the download link, I managed better this time.

  32. DAV

    a jones,

    I think a lot has to do with the definition of sentience and the meaning of self-awareness. Does it require awareness of mind? How would one ever know if anything (a dog for example and sometimes another human) was aware of it’s own mind even if it said so? Considering the difficulty in defining “intelligence”, can we really say we are truly aware of what a mind is, let alone our own?

    Self-awareness of body at least is different. In this, I think there is a gradation throughout the animal kingdom. I had a cat once that exhibited many things we associate with intelligence. For example, if another cat appeared in a window, she would go into, well, a hissy-fit but her own reflection, even in a window, never set her off. Another example: I once stood between her and a toy she wanted. To get it, she bolted off into another room and came up behind me. There was no wandering about. That takes awareness of local mapping and demonstrates some rather complex goal planning.

    Was the cat thinking? Its actions fit certain definitions of thinking. Perhaps the definition of thinking should be further restricted. Some would do this as a matter of course because humans are “special.” However, if the mind and body are not separate, as you have mentioned, then a gradation of intelligence and thinking is more likely.

  33. DAV


    Your examples of stroke victims show that many things previously associated with brain function are actually processes conducted elsewhere within the body with, perhaps, steering control by the brain. The brain seems to have evolved as a common control point. Even lobsters and cockroaches have brains. Much of our thinking is wrapped uo what our bodies do — at least at the subconscious level. However, to combine that with what Mr. Jones has been saying, is this lower processing functionality a genuine requirement for intelligence? We might be inclined to think so because that was likely how our own intelligence came about and it’s difficult to imagine anything else. More information is needed, I believe.

  34. Joy

    Agree, and I do believe that some of them have some self -awareness. Perhaps not all but lots of us have seen the self conscious cat that misses the jump or the horror at being wet through. A previous staffy of mine was intelligent enough that she used to plan or rather her behaviour demonstrated some dogly plotting was going on. Always amusing and transparent but plotting none the less.

    Many if not all dogs dream and this is evident when you watch them. Cats also (“if you stick a needle in it’s brain” – cruel physiology lecturer) it will act out it’s dreams including catching mice tossing them up. This is the part that stops us from sleep walking and the part that is overactive when you wake up and find you can’t move which can be scary. The part that is blocked with drugs in intensive care.

    I think science probably needs more evidence of higher brain function in animals but I see that there is some sort of continuous scale from the unicellular virus up to the boffin. I don’t need any more evidence but when any comes in to convince me otherwise I will have to change my mind. Your cat was clever. I also knew a farmer who told of how one of the cows let the others out of the barn and switched the lights on at night. They thought it was a person doing it until she was caught red handed. This naughtiness was duly noted and written down in her report book when she was sent to her new farm. Similarly, I know a lady who owned a pot-belly’d pig and a horse. They were both in the back garden. The pig worked the bottom bolt and the horse the top one. They were found wandering on more than one occasion.

  35. Farnsworth


    Neckties: I referred your show to someone. He came back and pointed out that neither his experience nor Wikipedia supported your assertions about the relationship between ties and jackets. Rats. Your hypothesis was expressed in the form of fact. Seems that can blow credibility with some folk. I misssed it, but I’m in the choir; the ones most in need of your preaching aren’t necessarily so fair.

    AI: In your definition of “artificial intelligence”, are you including or excluding artificially simulated natural intelligence? Because I’d agree that we are unlikely to achieve machine conciousness by deliberate design, but I bet we’ll achieve it with bottom-up design and simulation within hundreds of years. Bottom-up design makes complete understanding unnecessary, and simulation makes physical implementation unnecessary. That’s the only way we can get complex things done nowadays. We don’t completely understand how atoms work, but we manage to simulate some effects of some collections of them quite accurately. We don’t completely understand how semiconductors work, but we simulate supercomputers well enough to build ones that work. Anything can be simulated from the bottom up, including things impossible outside simulation. And whatever understanding does go in gets better all the time. We already have crude simulations of neurons. So I find it trivial to imagine in the forseeable future simulating atoms, molecules, cells, and brains with at least enough speed and accuracy to be technically concious. Probably before we have a decent climate model, since the brain is a much smaller system. Sure we won’t completely understand it. But that never stopped us before.

  36. Briggs

    My Dear Farnsworth,

    You might be right about the AI, but since our brains are meat machines, I’d guess it’s more likely we’d create, rather than simulate, one in a jar.

    But Wikipedia as a source for proper men’s wear? The mind boggles. This “document” is written by the very souls who regularly err. Far better to consult the original source documents. See anything by Alan Flusser or The Suit by Nicholas Antongiavanni, an indispensable guide.

  37. Tom Vonk

    Science says what is possible and technology says what is feasible (today) .
    If one considers that the science is an asymptote for technology then there is a HUGE gap between where we are today and the asymptote .
    For instance it is possible to capture the gravitationnal energy of a black hole and make electricity with it .
    How far is the technology from realizing that possibility ?
    I would venture that it is a very small number far below 1% .
    So seen from today the technological asymptote is at (almost) infinity for all practical purposes .
    Now even this concept supposes that the postulated asymptote (science) stays roughly constant .
    But there is also a progress in science so the asymptote tends to go farther to infinity too .
    It is much harder to estimate whether there is also an asymptote for science because , per definition , we have no idea about what is still completely unknown out there .
    On one hand very bright people make an assault on the “Theory of everything” which would be the string theory .
    Actually the word everything is here misleading because what is really meant is to find a quantum theory of gravity what would be much but probably not everything .
    On the other hand there is still the dark matter/dark energy problem whose solution may but must not be included in the “Theory of everything .”
    To that I’d add that even if the “Theory of everything” was found and proven we could still be left with the Navier-Stokes / turbulence kind of problem(s) .
    It is believed that the Navier-Stokes equations adequately and completely describe fluid dynamics and are known for more than 100 years .
    Yet it is still unknown whether they admit a unique and smooth solution and as they can obviously give birth to deterministic chaos the problem must still be considered as unsolved despite the fact that the equations are known .
    All that leads rather to the conjecture that the science asymptote if it exists is also very far above the science of today .
    So the curve you drafted wouldn’t apply to what you called the “technological ability” .
    How to avoid the singularity paradox with an ever increasing curve ?
    Well because it is fairly sure that the Universe will become cold an empty after a finite time (even black holes finish by evaporating sooner or later) .
    And I consider that it is pretty much excluded that any kind of sentient life could be supported by a Universe where only exists black body thermal radiation getting closer and closer to the absolute 0 .
    The problem would of course be solved in a much cleaner way if the expansion reversed (what doesn’t seem probable with actual knowledge) because then the Universe would be destroyed in a finite time too .
    You also added “intellectual ability” on your graph .
    I don’t really know what to say to this one as it is tricky and not clearly defined .
    It is a mixture of knowledge (apparently non asymptotic with what I said above) , the QI distribution curve where not only averages but also the standard deviations matter and considerations about AI what is a completely different thing altogether .
    The only thing that I’d say (but it is just a feeling !) is that the average QI would have the slowest variation of the issues considered here .
    Why ?
    Because both technology and science advances with the population in the tails which is but a small fraction of the overall population .
    So it is possible and it was also possible in the Middle Age that science and technolgy progresses , sometimes very fast , despite the fact that the average QI and the level of knowledge of the whole population , if it could have been measured , would evolve slowly or even not at all .

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