Exploring Intelligence

Cognition in people, machines, and the future

If Everyone Gets Smarter

This is a speculation about what might happen if everyone became smarter.

This blog was inspired by a bit of cultural myopia. In Fall of 2013 a free-lance magazine writer wrote and said that she was writing an article on what would happen if we all became much more intelligent. She was a persuasive person, so I wrote a brief essay for her. She promised to send me her article. 

And she did. It was in Dutch; Marysa van den Berg, “Wat als…de mens veel slimmer zu worden?, KIJK magazine, November, 2013. Well, Dutch is Greek to me, so I decided I’d better slim my essay down (it is 3 pages long) and put it on the blog. If anyone would like the full essay write to me at ehunt@u.washington.edu. Here is what I told Ms. Van den Berg.

We have been getting smarter for at least the last 15,000 years. Over that time we have invented more and more cognitive artifacts, i.e. artifacts and customs that improve our thinking. The first two, and probably the greatest, were writing and arithmetic. This enabled business, political, and scientific thinking. Then there is algebra, about 1000 years ago. Try doing modern physics without it! Today we have search engines and data mining techniques allow us to deal with more information than ever before. This trend will continue.

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Having said this, we have to be careful what we mean by “getting smart.” If we mean being able to process more information, irrespective of what that information means, we are basically talking about improvements in working memory and the control of attention. That, alone, would cut down on the number of traffic accidents, which would be great. It would also greatly ameliorate many of the problems of aging. And in addition… 

“Getting smarter” could mean simply reasoning better. Studies of intellectually gifted children have shown that our top students, today, could go through the K-12 and university system much quicker than they do. This would reduce the cost of the educational system and, in addition, provide an injection of youth into the workforce that could counterbalance the ever increasing number of senior citizens in the population. The rate of technological innovation would probably increase. This would have great benefits in everything from medicine to transportation and communication. There would also be improvements in daily living. Smarter people are better at personal health management, and certainly better at managing personal finances. These are both major problems in our society. Of course, this means that the advertising profession would have a challenge, but I cannot see that as undesirable. 

Social changes are harder to predict. There is some evidence that smart people are less religious, but the effect is small. Also, there are some areas of life where reason has never done quite as well as it should. For example, “myside bias” is a tendency to take a benign view of events that resound to your (or your group’s) benefit, and a rather harsh view of events that help someone else. The extent to which people show myside bias appears to be unrelated to intelligence. What does this mean? To take one example, it is not at all clear to me that an increase in intelligence would lead to a resolution of the very complicated Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I am afraid that with higher intelligence each side would simply provide more sophisticated arguments for their own position. 

More generally, Jonathan Haidt has pointed out that human societies place values on (a) policies that permit personal freedom of action, (b) policies that assist the weak…redistributive justice in the terms of some philosophers, and (c) policies that reinforce group identity, which can include ceremonies and rituals. If we were all to get much smarter we would get better at realizing what policies were likely to strengthen each of these goals, but different parts of society would continue to disagree about which of the goals were most important. Smart liberals and smart conservatives can have strong disagreements over political, economic, and social policies. 

My final point is a bit worrisome. If there is going to be a great increase in intelligence it will probably come about because of better educational systems, better health practices, and the creation of better cognitive artifacts. (I do not worry about genetic change. That is far too slow and iffy to be of concern.) I worry about a world in which the social improvements that create intelligence are available only to the more affluent members of society. 

Earl Hunt, Ph.D., is Professor Emeritus in psychology at the University of Washington.

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