Brains and Bounds: a sketchy thought experiment

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The question of where intelligence begins is unambiguously, jaw-droppingly challenging, because it’s confounded by our decidedly anthropocentric bias. We’re so full of ourselves that most of us have real trouble believing there’s anything as intelligent as humans. At least on Earth it seems that the next best things - monkeys or dolphins or maybe elephants - aren’t “really” intelligent. They’re just not as dumb as rocks. They don’t write, or fall in love, or start wars, and we get all excited when they crack a nut or throw a spear. They appear to be nothing more than fragile, frisky machines. So we naturally assume that if there is a non-human intelligence, it’s got to be somewhere else. But where?

In science fiction you’ll find a million theories that attempt to explain this so-called Fermi Paradox, which is formally stated:
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The size and age of the universe suggest that many technologically advanced extraterrestrial civilizations ought to exist. However, this belief seems logically inconsistent with the lack of observational evidence to support it. Either the initial assumption is incorrect and technologically advanced intelligent life is much rarer than believed, current observations are incomplete and human beings have not detected other civilizations yet, or search methodologies are flawed and incorrect indicators are being sought.

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Among them are the pretty reasonable suggestions: (a) maybe we just have no idea what a non-human intelligence would look like and therefore can’t “hear” them, (b) maybe intelligent creatures by nature kill themselves off, (c) (my favorite) maybe intelligent civilizations get so damn intelligent that they end up living in some kind of virtual world on a chip somewhere, and so on…

With that in mind, saying where “intelligence” begins is almost silly because informative observations are hard to come by, and thus as far as the eye can see we are pretty much it. So to keep things moving I think I have to cop out and arbitrarily (but not unreasonably) set our lower bound at a really stupid baby.

Now suppose you had a computer with the rough intellectual capacity of a 6-year old child (which would be quite a feat) and you began to teach it. Surely such a computer, which we further imagine could interface with both humans, other computers, and the environment in some kind of fanciful Web 10.0, would learn quite quickly. Pretty soon it would probably get pretty damn smart. What’s the theoretical limit?

Suppose it comes to know the position and velocity of every particle in the universe. Then the question becomes: what would it not know? Would it hear the unconscious of every intelligent creature and feel the eddies of every ocean? Or would it merely have an astronomical array of meaningless data? Further, would it take any intelligence beyond simply having those bits to interpret them, to know what it knows? Would intelligence give way to omnipotent awareness? Would it become some kind of living, loving God?

At a certain point I have to imagine there’s nowhere left to go. Once you know everything in the Universe (which probably amounts to knowing the position and velocity of every particle), how could you have any new thought? And - in some kind of weird way - wouldn’t that make you the Universe? Does it logically follow that the Universe is really the Universe’s biggest (and only) computer? Or is that just a contrived metaphor?

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Comments

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Avinash Mar 1st, 2007 at 7:04 pm

I think you’ve been reading a bit too much Isaac Asimov (The Last Question, anyone?)

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Jim Clay May 1st, 2007 at 7:26 pm

Umm, quantum physics teaches us that you can’t know the position and velocity of any particle, let alone all of them.

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