In 1993, mathematics professor/science fiction author Vernor Vinge wrote a now-famous article entitled “The Coming Technological Singularity“. He talked about the future, and a time when humanity will create an artificial (i.e. computer) superhuman intelligence, and the consequences of that event.
At one point, he discusses the specific nature of the difference between human and superhuman intelligence:
Imagine yourself locked in your home with only limited data access to the outside, to your masters. If those masters thought at a rate — say — one million times slower than you, there is little doubt that over a period of years (your time) you could come up with “helpful advice” that would incidentally set you free. (I call this “fast thinking” form of superintelligence “weak superhumanity”[…]. “Strong superhumanity” would be more than cranking up the clock speed on a human-equivalent mind. It’s hard to say precisely what “strong superhumanity” would be like, but the difference appears to be profound. Imagine running a dog mind at very high speed. Would a thousand years of doggy living add up to any human insight?)
I need to backtrack a bit here, and describe the Singularity of the article’s title. A singularity is a point at which it’s impossible to know what lies beyond. The center of a black hole is generally thought of as a singularity — its gravitational pull is so great that no energy can escape it, thus no information can get out, thus it’s impossible to know what’s going on in there from the outside. In the context of spacetime, the Big Bang is another singularity; there’s basically no way we will ever be able to know what, if anything, happened or existed before the Big Bang.
So it is with superhuman intelligence. If there is an intellect out there somewhere that is truly superhuman, then a thousand years of “humany” living isn’t going to add up to superhuman insight. Because of this, it’s impossible for mere humans to imagine what a superhuman intellect would be like– it’s a singularity. The creation of a “strong” superhuman intelligence is a point in history beyond which we simply cannot predict, because we can’t possibly comprehend the vastly different thought process of such an intelligence.
I’ve always found this an interesting discussion, and I think that the distinction he makes, though vastly exaggerated in the new context, applies to geniuses as well– not superhuman, but “pinnacle” human intelligence.
Specifically, I think that most people imagine that geniuses’ minds work just like theirs, but moreso, or faster. Just as Vinge struggles to imagine what a “strong” superhuman intelligence might possibly be like, it’s difficult for any person to imagine (with any accuracy, at least) what it would be like to be significantly smarter than they themselves are — even remaining within the range of actual human intelligence. It’s an infinite loop — you would have to actually be that much smarter to understand what it’s like to be that much smarter. On the small scale the change is negligible, but in the higher levels — can a person with a 100 IQ every really understand what’s going on in the mind of a person with 160 IQ? Well, yes. Sometimes. Geniuses do have human instincts, not to mention hunger, lust, and the whole gamut of human desire. But by and large the thought process is on an entirely different level– the 160 IQ is going to make connections that simply aren’t possible from the average mind. This in turn can lead to an alienation among the exceptionally intelligent that is difficult to overcome.
It’s no wonder to me that geniuses have such a high suicide rate. The only way they can really relate to the masses of people around themselves is to essentially “dumb themselves down”. Even if they’re willing to do that, it’s difficult, and repressive in the long run. I remember when I was a child, I decided that I needed to simplify my language so that I fit in better with other kids. It lasted no longer than a couple months, after which I realized that I simply couldn’t express what I wanted to express if I wasn’t willing to use the full range of my ability. In the interests of fitting in I had shackled myself, and it was unbearable.
In many ways that has been my marriage. My wife sees me as judgmental, so I find myself not talking about things I would like to talk about. Even the stupid little things– she likes to watch mysteries and cop shows, so a lot of times I’ll turn to her during an ad and say “So who do you think did it?” She doesn’t know, and is offended that I think she should know. To me trying to figure it out is an obvious part of watching such a program, but she doesn’t want to think about it.
She’s gotten used to my little treatises on various subjects, but at such times she’s just along for the ride. For the most part I’m all but talking to myself. When I was a kid I had more friends over the age of 30 than I did my own age. Then I grew up and found myself more or less alone. I’ve muddled along, but I need something more. I need to find a way to surround myself with like minds. I’m thinking of joining Mensa or something, but how much will that do? (Interestingly, I also have a fear that I would try out for Mensa and not qualify. Heh. Impostor Syndrome, or am I not as smart as I think I am?)
The more I look at my life I feel like a piece of fruit that is just starting to rot. I can’t undo the damage that is already done, or the time already lost, but perhaps I can do better down the road. The question is How? Do I end a marriage that I think is dragging me down? Can I remain close to my family? Should I quit my job that leaves me twiddling my thumbs more often than not? (I work for the family company, and I’m no longer sure if I could hold down a different job.) Is the impulse to tear down existing structures just part of the pathology of depression, or is it a solid instinct that should be followed? Sometimes I feel as though my entire adult life has been one extended panic attack. I sleep more and more lately and rarely feel rested. (I need to take note of the times I do feel rested and figure out what’s different!) I’ve been adrift for decades. I don’t know the way back to shore, and if I find the way I’m not sure I can get there.
And the more I look at people the more they just seem like alien things to me. I don’t understand them, or when I do understand them I’m bothered by them. And I hate that. I hate feeling like that. I want to like people. I want to understand people. I want to… be people. But I’m not. The dichotomy of intelligence goes both ways, and a thousand years of “Fred-y” living will not add up to insight into the minds of average people. I’m living inside a singularity– I have no idea what the future holds, and the thought of finding out terrifies me.