How important is intelligence? Last night's Horizon programme set me wondering. Ray Kurzweil said:
Human society will be profoundly transformed by creating non-biological intelligence machines that are ultimately billions of times more capable than human beings today. And we will integrate with this technology and it will enhance human potential.
But is intelligence really so crucial to progress? Five things suggest not:
1. Simple introspection. I don't think my life would have been better had I been twice as intelligent as I am. Lack of intelligence has not been the binding constraint on me - it's a lack of discipline, imagination, creativity and charm that's the problem.
2. Intellectual progress does not come merely from intelligence. It requires discipline - hence James Buchanan's famous advice to researchers: "keep the ass to the chair", creativity and sometimes raw luck. For example Harry Markowitz says his work on portfolio theory was inspired by a "chance conversation." These qualities have no obvious positive correlation with IQ. This might explain why the correlation between a country's average IQ and the number of Nobel prizes it's won has been insignificant.
3. As Adam Smith described in the first chapters of the Wealth of Nations, material progress comes from making tasks routine, and reducing our need to think. As Alfred North Whitehead said, "Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking of them."
4. It's not obvious that intelligence alone would free us from the cognitive biases that afflict judgment, simply because trained experts today get things wrong. "Doctors...are just as prone to errors in decision making as anyone else" says this paper. Indeed, greater intelligence might merely make us more prone to errors arising from over-confidence.
5. The most important forms of human progress - reducing poverty in Africa - don't need intelligence, as narrowly defined. The technologies that would relieve suffering - good government, properry rights, transport - have been known for centuries.
So, shouldn't we worry less about increasing human potential, and more about making fuller use of the potential we already have?