The Future of Intelligence


Originally published by H+ Magazine

Human intelligence, like everything related to biological systems, is an evolving phenomenon. It has not been static in the past, and will not persist in its current form into the future. The human-version of intelligence has made our species the most powerful agent of change ever produced by the earth’s biosphere. Therefore, understanding its evolutionary past should be a primary concern for evolutionary theorists. Also, understanding this evolutionary past should give us our best opportunity to predict what the future of intelligence may be. We have a good idea of how biological systems operate and change on the scale of hundreds of thousands, and even millions of years. We have no idea how we should suspect high intelligence to operate and change on comparable scales. This makes the future of intelligence simultaneously the most perplexing and most pressing evolutionary issue for 21st century science.

Several theorists have puzzled over the nature of intelligence. High human intelligence even led Alfred Russell Wallace, the co-discoverer of the theory of evolution by natural selection, to embrace intelligent design. How could selection produce a species with a love for art, music, religion, and science? Despite his incredulity, other evolutionary theorists have been able to piece together the evolutionary pressures that shaped our mind. However, what has perplexed many scientists is how rare intelligence is from an evolutionary perspective. Palaeontologists have discovered several million species spanning hundreds of millions of years of evolution. Yet no known organism other than humans, has ever evolved complex language, engaged in abstract artistic expression, or developed advanced technologies.

Clearly the human ability to engage in these novel behaviours is dependent on the human brain. Today we still have a lot to learn about the brain, but the cerebral cortex obviously produces/enables the behaviours we consider “human”. Therefore, one of the most remarkable developments in the history of life was the expansion of human cranial capacity. Over a comparatively short period of evolutionary time, hominid brain size exploded.

Before the emergence of our genus, apes had existed for approximately 18 million years. Over this span of time apes experienced quite negligible increases in cranial capacity. The first ape, Proconsul africanus, had a cranial capacity of approximately 170cc and an encephalization quotient (EQ) of 1.5. In comparison, late australopithcines had a cranial capacity of approximately 350cc and an EQ between 3.0-3.5 and contemporary chimpanzees have a cranial capacity of 320cc and an EQ of 2.5. Although the late australopithecines and great apes represent a primate trend towards larger brain size, the increased expansion in these species is quite modest compared to the development among our direct ancestors within the genus Homo.

Recent studies, like those conducted on the 2.5 million-year-old Australopithecus africanus skull known as Taung Child suggest that human-like brain growth had already started in the precursor species to Homo. We know this because all great apes are born with a fused anterior fontanelle. However, modern humans are born with an open anterior fontanelle in order to allow for rapid brain growth during the first two years of life. Gradually this opening fuses in what is known as a metopic suture. Interestingly, the Taung Child skull indicates that late australopithecines were born with an open anterior fontanelle, just like modern humans. They possessed a key exaptation that would allow for the rapid brain growth observed in the fossil record with the emergence of our genus.

The Explosion

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Evolutionary processes can occur in short bursts of hundreds of thousands of years, and sometimes tens of thousands of years. When this is observed in the fossil record it is called an event of punctuated equilibrium. Usually, punctuated equilibrium events are stimulated by rapid environmental change. For humans, strong environmental pressures seem to have led to the development of a very strong positive feedback loop. Early Homo developed rudimentary stone tools and the ability to control fire in order to control access to scarce but valuable food resources. This quite dramatically improved the human diet allowing more energy to feed an energy-intensive organ: the brain. The more energy that could be dedicated to brain function, the more easily humans could develop more advanced and sophisticated tool technologies to, once again, improve and expand access to food resources. This is what I mean by positive feedback loop.

Between two million years B.P. and 200,000 years B.P. hominid brain size tripled from 500cc to 1500cc and EQ increased from 3.5 to 7.5. But absolute brain size and brain-to-body size ratio are not the only important and critical measures of this brain growth. It is also important to understand how our brain was reorganized as brain size increased. When brain size tripled in our hominid ancestors, every aspect of our brain did not get three times larger. Our amygdala, for example, is no bigger than a Rhesus macaques, even though our brains overall are five times larger. Our brains expanded to allow more space for one particular region: the cerebral cortex. It is this area of the brain that is key for producing complex language and abstract thought (side note: If you want to learn more about the differences between humans and chimpanzees you can read my last post here).

As far as we know, no other species has developed a communication system as complex as human language. When language evolved, it was the first time in Earth history that a species was able to share detailed thoughts, feelings, and knowledge of their mind. In my opinion, this was a key transition to the Global Brain.

Anthropologists still debate about when complex language first emerged. Of course it is difficult to understand the origin of something that does not fossilize. However, indirect evidence from understanding past hominid group size, and the emergence of genes that play an important role in enabling human-level linguistic capacity, suggest that it was present around 500,000 years ago. Hominids with this new skill had unknowingly opened up an information highway that would grow increasing sophisticated, complex, and powerful over the next few hundred thousand years.

Language enabled our species to become ever more intelligent. With language we had more information, more knowledge, and consequently, this gave us more options. Physicists have suggested that more options represent the key underlying fabric of intelligence. At it’s most fundamental level intelligence can be reduced to an agents ability to maximize options. The more options an agent has, the more intelligent that agent is; at least at the level of physics.

We can align this view with an anthropological perspective. I, for example, have dramatically more options available for my future life than does a chimpanzee (or any other species on the planet). These options and choices are of course partially attributable to my own individual intellectual capacity. But we must not forget that the great majority of my increased options are attributable to the superorganism of which I am a part. As a result, I have more options than would an anatomically modern human that lived in East Africa 200,000 years ago, even though from an individual perspective we would have the same capacity for high intelligence.

Global Brain

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Today we are creating an increasingly interconnected global network of intelligence that, I would argue, started developing in the societies that first possessed complex language. Language increased the options of the individual. However, the second key development towards global interconnectedness was the development of complex civilization. What language enabled for the individual, civilization enabled for large collections of individuals. For the first time, hundreds of thousands of highly intelligent beings could collectively identify with one another. Civilization also enabled an increasingly large fraction of humans to dedicate their lives to non-food related endeavours. This created another, more powerful feedback loop, that allowed for the exponential development of technological and memetic evolution.

Whereas the first technology feedback loop enabled the expansion of the cerebral cortex, the feedback loop enabled by civilization enabled us to improve the information stored within that cerebral cortex. Brains themselves had reached their biological maximum because of

A) how energy-intensive they are

B) biological births and our body structure make any further increase in brain size an evolutionarily negative trade off

But it didn’t really matter because the cerebral cortex we developed in our evolutionary history has the capacity to store approximately 2.5 petabytes of information. Any human in the ancient world, medieval world, or early modern era could read and consume information for their entire lifetimes and never really reach a limit. In the ancient world the most learned individuals had the ability to be polymaths. They were able to know everything useful that humans had thought within their own memetic bubble (which was obviously not global yet).

Today it is impossible to know everything within the global memetic bubble. There is just too much information within every discipline and sub-discipline to ever know all the useful information that exists. The feedback loop that enabled more and more humans to dedicate their lives to things other than food production has produced too many useful, well-recorded, and well-organized memes for them all to be known by any one human brain. This phenomenon has resulted in a term for overabundance of information: “infobesity”. Many humans are now overwhelmed by both the amount of useful information that exists and the rate at which new useful information is produced.

Luckily, we have developed sophisticated technologies to access all of this information whenever we want and/or need it. All world knowledge is catalogued and almost universally abundant to any human on the planet with an internet connection. The information highway is as sophisticated as it has ever been. This is a true step towards a Global Brain, and certainly increases any one individual’s options, actually making them more intelligent.

However, this sophisticated information highway has produced a new environmental pressure on our hominid brains. We are quickly reaching our brain’s memetic capacity. There are estimated to be approximately 300 million pattern-recognizers in the human cerebral cortex that enable us to learn an abundant amount of useful information. But by the time we are adults most of those pattern-recognizers have been used up, making it increasingly difficult to learn new skills. We need more pattern recognizers. We need to enhance our brains.

During the 21st century, the expansion of our own cerebral cortex and the connection of our minds to a Global Brain will be the future of intelligence.

Throughout evolutionary history our brains were expanded biologically and physically. Our neuron networks were rewired and our actual cranial capacity increased. In the future we will not actually need to increase our biological and physical brain volume to expand our cerebral cortex. We will modify our cerebral cortex with brain extenders.

Brain extenders technically already exist. Google is a brain extender. Wikipedia is a brain extender. Your smart phone is a brain extender. You have access to world knowledge nearly everywhere for free. It is a personal decision whether you take full advantage of that. Either way, as I said, at the moment we can’t know it all. Our brains limit us. But computer technology is getting smaller, more complex, and more intimately connected with our day-to-day lives. Computers that used to fill entire auditoriums are now in our pockets. If current trends continue, they will be inside our brains in the not-so-distant future (i.e., 2030s, 2040s). There is not necessarily any reason to believe that the trends won’t continue. Technology can merge with biology quite easily without complication. Achieving greater degrees of computation in smaller and smaller technologies will also likely continue without complication. The societal pressures for more computation are ubiquitous and unarguably beneficial. Transitioning into a world where humans build cell-sized computer networks within the brain seems like a pretty solid bet. These networks will dramatically improve the functioning and ability of the cerebral cortex, allowing us to fully connect to the cloud and with all other humans.

This will not just be a quantitative leap in our ability and intelligence. Of course, as I said, from a quantitative perspective this development will allow us to know more and more, and to connect more easily with more and more people in the cloud. But it will also likely be a qualitative leap. No australopithecine could have dreamed of the world that language opened up. No early hominid could have dreamed of the world civilization opened up. No human of the ancient world could have dreamed of the world the internet has opened up. Likewise, what the Global Brain will enable us to do is really beyond our ability to specifically predict. Certainly we can hypothesize. But I think any specific guess would be only slightly better than the guesses of early 20th century French futurists that predicted people would be making trans-Atlantic trips via whale in the year 2000.

Obviously the further we attempt to peer into the future, the more difficult it becomes to know with any certainty what will occur. It may be completely impossible to know what type of intelligence will emerge in the next 500-1,000 years. Who knows, maybe we early 21st century humans will be a part of whatever future intelligence exists at this time. But our evolutionary past can help us understand the larger process that appears to be occurring. I think it is grounded to say that evolutionary pressures are leading us into a world where the amount of useful information any one human can acquire is increasing. This has been the trend over evolutionary deep time. Likewise, the density and sophistication of the networks formed by humans has increased exponentially. Both processes at the individual and superorganism level seem to be leading us quite quickly towards a Global Brain.

This will not just be a metaphorical Global Brain. You will literally be directly connected to the thoughts, feelings, and knowledge of all other humans. The cloud is where we will be living by the end of this century. This is where the human dialogue is moving. Whether the humans engaging in this dialogue at the end of the century will be mostly biological, or mostly technological, to me is still up for debate. Certainly a large proportion of their physical makeup will be non-biological. Whether these humans in the future decide that this development constitutes a new evolution, a new species, will be for them to decide. To us early 21st century humans they will certainly possess a new intelligence on both the individual and superorganism level. They will not be human as we think of humans today.

Entities in this Global Brain would certainly have more options and choices. From a physicists perspective of a complex system they will be more intelligent. From an anthropological perspective of a species they will be more intelligent. What they could do, what they could become, the number of novel and positive phenomena they could experience will be significantly enhanced. Again, I think the evolutionary trends support that assertion. There will still be problems and evolutionary arms races. Things will not be perfect. Struggle and competition will still exist in new and different forms. Life goes on. But we will have become a new intelligence. A higher intelligence than currently exists on earth.

This higher intelligence will have dramatically extended individual life and substantially improved overall standard of living. Will there be death? What about disparity in wealth and abundance? It’s probable. But it will not be the same type of death or disparity that we know today. I’m a Canadian that technically lives below or near the poverty line. Yet on any given night I can eat food from anywhere in the world. I can go traveling to different continents fairly regularly. I can contact any human I know wherever they are in the world. I can access almost all knowledge that humans have acquired. I have a nice and comfortable bed. I have considerable leisure time. I can consume a near infinite amount of culture from anywhere in the world. I have never been in a near-death situation and very rarely, if ever, feared for my existence. All of this would be inconceivable to any pre-World War II human living below or near the poverty line. Indeed, it would be inconceivable for any pre-20th century human period. My point is that what constitutes long-life, health, abundance, etc. changes. If evolutionary trends are to be taken seriously, they will change significantly in the near future. Higher intelligence wants longer life, health, and abundance. In the future, higher intelligence will improve all aspects of this. They will take on new cultural meanings, as they always have. It will be a new intelligence.

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