The question “how do we get smarter?” is much discussed these days. And the reason is that we hope that we are. Not because our physical capacity is different than our ancestors. There is no evidence for that. But because we have better intellectual tools that enable us to leverage what we have.
Thus it is not likely to have been accidental that when man discovered abstract reasoning and written language around 5,000 years ago, civilization (as we understand it) took off. Mankind had tools that he/she did not have before. And it would not be surprising that as we develop better and better tools (like Newton’s calculus, scientific method and so on) and get better at using them, that we advance at an accelerating rate. So it has been and likely to be in the 21st century. The flow of discussion about ideas is getting a stronger current, and we are better able to “fish” for what we want in that flow. Both of these advances matter. And they matter a lot.
One of the more interesting tools we are building now is to model where great ideas come from. Or, what is it that is flowing? We are just starting to model this as a process. We know from Johnson, Ridley, et al that there is a social dimension to this process. The old paradigm that really, really smart people generate these ideas alone has been debunked. We also know that ideas evolve over time through repeated use and sharing of concepts. In other words, intelligence is situational. A genius physicist may not make a great president. So getting “into the flow” is not like going to the story for ready made, finished ideas. It is more like going to a DIY crafts show.
But how do we choose what to investigate? More basically, what is at the core of our confidence that learning improves our living? Or more fundamentally, that we can be more “intelligent”? We tend to equate it with “problem solving”. Smart people find creative solutions to problems faster than dodo’s. But how do we decide which problems to solve? And how do we decide what are the best solutions? We know form Csikszentmihalyi that these questions are deeply challenging. Our lives have meaning or not depending on how we make these decisions.
Alex Wissner-Gross thinks that he knows the answer. He says that intelligence is a physical process that keeps options open over time for the entity making the decisions. And he believes that it can be replicated in machines. Check out his rather provocative TED talk