Intelligence is a big deal. Humanity owes its dominant position on Earth not to any special strength of our muscles, nor any unusual sharpness of our teeth, but to the unique ingenuity of our brains. It is our brains that are responsible for the complex social organization and the accumulation of technical, economic and scientific advances that, for better and worse, undergird modern civilization.
All our technological inventions, philosophical ideas and scientific theories have gone through the birth canal of the human intellect. Arguably, human brain power is the chief limiting factor in the development of human civilization.
Unlike the speed of light or the mass of the electron, human brain power is not an eternally fixed constant. Brains can be enhanced. And, in principle, machines can be made to process information as efficiently as–or more efficiently than–biological nervous systems.
There are multiple paths to greater intelligence. By “intelligence,” I here refer to the panoply of cognitive capacities, including not just book smarts but also creativity, social intuition, wisdom and so on.
There are traditional means of enhancing intelligence, like education, and newer means like biotechnology. Perhaps the smartest and wisest thing the human species could do would be to work on making itself smarter and wiser. In the longer run, however, biological human brains might cease to be the predominant nexus of earthly intelligence.
Machines will have several advantages: most obviously, faster processing speed. An artificial neuron can operate a million times faster than its biological counterpart. Machine intelligences may also have superior computational architectures and learning algorithms. These “qualitative” advantages, while harder to predict, may be even more important than the advantages in processing power and memory capacity. Furthermore, artificial intellects can be easily copied, and each new copy can–unlike humans–start life fully fledged and endowed with all the knowledge accumulated by its predecessors. Given these considerations, it is possible that one day we may be able to create “superintelligence,” a general intelligence that vastly outperforms the best human brains in every significant cognitive domain.