Home Scholar's Desk On the Evolution of Intelligence

On the Evolution of Intelligence


By Dr. Steven Gans
Faculty Member, Philosophy at American Public University

What is intelligence, how did it evolve and how is it going to evolve? These are questions that require an inter-disciplinary approach, and I’ll  address these questions from the perspective of a modern- day “da Vinci,” Ray Kurzweil, author of How to Create a Mind: The Secret of Human Thought Revealed.

Are Atoms Intelligent?

Considering the evolution of the physical universe we first need to ask, are atoms intelligent? I believe the answer is yes, because atoms interact according to “encoded information,” i.e.,   Morse code. If you send three dots… short signals then three dashes —, and then three short ones again … you will have sent an S.O.S. The letters are encoded in the Morse code.

Atoms are continually encoding and deciphering information which causes them to link in certain formations and avoid others. After the Big Bang, it was the bleeping signals of atomic energy that ultimately resulted in the solar system as we know it.

From Biology to Mind

Life on our planet was created by the especially cunning carbon atom, which connects to others in four unique ways. This enables the creation of complex molecular patterns and systems. So from physics, we move to chemistry and then to the evolution of living beings. Biology relies on the encoding of information by means of DNA or the genetic code, to more and more complex brains as they emerge to better adapt the organism to its environment. Ultimately, the human brain has developed as the highest intelligence thus far. Humans have the capacity for hierarchical thinking or encoding. Kurzweil calls the human brain “a self-organizing hierarchical system of pattern recognizers.” With this ability to organize elements into patterns and patterns into symbols and for these symbols themselves to be reorganized as ideas and then knowledge, humans are able to develop language and with language stories. Stories paint pictures in the mind and are the first and most powerful technology.

[Learn more about the online degrees in Humanities at American Public University.]

Kurzweil, proposes to reverse engineer the human brain/mind in order to create artificial intelligence as the next stage of the evolution of intelligence. He proposes the PRTM, or pattern recognition theory of mind, as his paradigm. The brain, he argues, is nothing but nested groups of pattern- recognizing neurons, all interlinked and firing 1,000 times a second, so that they recognize and manifest our experience of the world.  Every experience is nothing more than a remembered “present” created from learned patterns, recognized as the “things” in the world, including our “self”.

The Future of Intelligence

Kurzweil argues that once the full functionality of the brain is unlocked, it will be reproducible in the form of self-learning, and artificial intelligence. When an artificial intelligence passes the Turing test, which means its responses will not be distinguishable from ordinary human responses, we will have reached what Kurzweil calls the Singularity. He predicts this will occur by 2045. From there, he argues, artificial intelligence will accelerate exponentially in its evolution and the only way for humans to keep up, will be to become enhanced. This will mean directly accessing the cloud of artificially generated information and knowledge.

That we already are at the early stage of technological evolution is clear. This is evidenced, for example, by Watson, a computer system, which beat the best two Jeopardy players in the world in, a game that requires sophisticated comprehension of meaning. In order to achieve this Watson had to digest the entirety of Wikipedia, plus millions of information sources available on the Internet and learn how to evaluate this vast array of information into intelligent responses to rather obscure questions.

I hope I have whetted your appetite for reading Kurzweil and for participating in interdisciplinary discussions on the questions and issues he raises.


About the Author:

Dr. Steven Gans received his PhD from Penn State. He developed an interest in applied philosophy, namely, existential psychotherapy, and went to London to study with a master in the field, R. D. Laing. Dr. Gans was also interested in experiential self-directed learning and co-founded an individualized MA program in Humanistic Psychology for Antioch University in London. In practice he follows the ethics of Emanuel Levinas who bases ethics on the “face to face” encounter and argues that we should always “put the other first”. He has co-authored Just Listening: Ethics and Therapy with Dr. Leon Redler. In a series of dialogues they discuss the ethical practice of psychotherapy.