Distinguishable from intelligence? Don’t mistake technology with superiority,Wendy M. Grossman,The Skeptic

This article originally appeared in The Skeptic, Volume 16, Issue 1, from 2003.

Probably everyone has heard Arthur C Clarke’s most famous saying: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Michael Shermer, editor of the LA-based magazine Skeptic magazine (whose birth postdates our The Skeptic), in a column for Scientific American, extends this to argue that “Any sufficiently advanced extraterrestrial intelligence is indistinguishable from God.”

Shermer goes on to say that if an ETI ever dropped in on us,

It will be as though a million-year old Homo erectus were dropped into the 21st century, given a computer and cellphone and instructed to communicate with us. The ETI would be to us as we would be to this early hominid – godlike.

He also figures that Moore’s Law means that by 2050 computational power will be, from our perspective, nearly infinite and therefore indistinguishable from omniscience.

Well, now, let’s think about this. The first thing is that the person who wrote this can’t be very familiar with technology. Computational power in and of itself means nothing. The £1,000 computer I have on my desk right now is many times more powerful than the first mainframe (and a tiny fraction of the size), but that doesn’t make it more intelligent. It just makes the computer more capable of doing really stupid things much, much faster. Why, on this here computer, I can 1) play a word game, 2) work on an article, 3) research on the Web in a dozen browser windows, 4) chat with friends, 5) play music, 6) check email, 7) keep track of my schedule, and 8) manage my finances, all at the same time. None of that makes it more intelligent, just a more versatile tool. I don’t see it, for example, offering to help write my article for me. It is no closer to thinking creatively than my toaster.

The second thing is that I’m not convinced we’d seem remotely intelligent to an early hominid.

Remember Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court? Or H G Wells’ “The Country of the Blind”? No? In both those stories the protagonist figured he had the advantage, the Connecticut Yankee by virtue of the increased intelligence he imagined a 13th century denizen had over one of the 6th century, the sighted man because of his ability to see in a country full of blind people. It more or less worked for Twain’s character, who had the good fortune to remember the date of an imminent eclipse, but poorly for Wells’s character, who was threatened with the prospect of having his eyes put out to bring him into conformity with the rest of the populace, who thought his claims to be able to ‘see’ were the product of lunacy.

In our own case, it’s arguable that an early hominid would find us helpless and stupid about the simplest necessities for survival. Could you find food in the jungle? Build a waterproof shelter out of nothing more than mud and twigs? Entertain yourself and others with no light or electrical power? Meantime, many of the things we do know how to do would simply be incomprehensible to him. We’re making marks on a lighted screen? (And that’s assuming you can find some electricity to run your computer off.) What’s that about? Mobile phones, computers, TVs, and those other paraphernalia of modern life would surely seem quite mad. Even the clothes: you’re walking around your house in a T-shirt and shorts? Don’t you know it’s winter? And so on.

I’m not convinced, in other words, that the progress of technology says that we are innately more intelligent than our forebears. The people who first thought up knitting and weaving, figured out how to make a wheel, invented tools, painstakingly devised writing systems … those people must have had giant creative reasoning abilities. Before the 1960s, one of my friends likes to say, everyone thought the Greeks had everything pretty much figured out. It’s only since then that we’ve adopted the arrogant presumption that we are the smartest humans that ever lived. Chronocentrist, another friend calls it.

Thirdly, imagine that a being from a million years hence dropped in. Would he even be able to figure out how to use our mobile phones and computers? These gadgets are not intuitive, and being able to use them has nothing to do with intelligence. Some of the brightest people can’t figure out that F1 on a PC means Help – because that’s not something you can reason your way to, it’s merely a convention that has grown up over the last decade. And that’s presuming you know the language. Do you think today’s English speakers can learn French faster than King Arthur’s courtiers could? I say that the guy from a million years hence gets here and seems stupid to us. He won’t know the language, he won’t understand the technology, he’ll miss the comforts of his no doubt advanced home, and he’ll be arrogant with it because he’ll think we’re the ones who need to get with the program. He’ll be as obnoxious as the American tourist who gets here and complains he can’t find an ice-cold Budweiser.

God-like? Yeah. If God is, like, really annoying.

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From the archives, Wendy Grossman disputes Michael Shermer’s claim that we are obviously more intelligent than our ancestors
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