Monday, December 10, 2007

About Superior Intelligence

Are creatures from Space visiting us? This a pertinent question warming presidential candidate debates. My father believed so. He was convinced that they were way smarter than us and too wise to reveal themselves. He also believed that they must have a good time watching us making stupid decisions. Ever since he shared his hypothesis with me, I have been pondering the idea of what it would take to be decisively smarter than humans?

All processes in the universe seem sequential, unfolding with the flow of time. The timing of events decides cause and effect. If we cannot peg the time, analysis and reason fail. Therefore, our ability to resolve the timing of events is of existential importance for our perception of the world. The nerve cells in the brain and the connections they form with each other determine the limits of this ability. The nerve cells in the cerebral cortex may be able to distinguish between subsequent events only, if they occur more than about 5 milliseconds apart.

Technology had to be invented to permit us to understand happenings in shorter time. We had to invent clocks with highly precise movements for this purpose. We had to discover optical atomic clocks to be able to reach for the timing of light. Although these technologies help us to better understand cause and effect in the universe, our mind remains bound by the condition of our nervous system, limiting our responsiveness.

Therefore, a nervous system with a greater temporal resolution seems a prerequisite for superior intelligence. If extraterrestrials were to resolve time better than we do, they would be able to distinguish between causes and effects where we perceived only coincidence and thus could address a situation more appropriately. Such minds could distinguish better between causality and complementarity.

Of course, greater temporal resolution is not the only requirement. Nerve cells in the brains of echolocating bats resolve binaural differences in the timing of tone pips smaller than a millisecond (Harnischfeger and others, 1985). Though atomic clocks may provide fascinating remedies for our mental shortcomings in this respect, I do prefer the exquisitely-crafted, fine time pieces by Raymond Weil,but settled for a Festina.

  • On Mar. 20, 2009, National Public Radio's All Things Considered broadcast a segment entitled "Smart People Really Do Think Faster" by Jon Hamilton on recent research findings providing evidence that higher intelligence can indeed be associated with greater nervous processing speed (03/25/09).
  • They may exist after all. Read here. Watch this (04/22/09):
  • According to Kate Kelland's post entitled "Scientists say "super-Earth" has rocky surface" on Reuters today, astronomers have discovered 330 exoplanets so far. Exoplanets revolve around suns different from our own. Most are very large gas giants. But recent studies indicate that a smaller one is rocky like Earth. The universe seems filled with plenty opportunity (09/16/09)!
  • According to the Extrasolar Planets Encyclopaedia, the number of exoplanets stands at 452 today. Paul Davies who heads the BEYOND center for fundamental concepts in science at Arizona State University published an insightful essay entitled "Is Anybody Out There?"  on the search for extraterrestrial intelligence in The Wall Street Journal on Apr. 10 (10/22/10).
  • A NASA spokesman provides some insights where the agency is looking for extraterrestrial life in an interview with CNN's John Roberts (04/29/10):
  • The eminent cosmologist Stephen Hawking wrote an insightful essay entitled "How to build a time machine" published online in the Daily Mail yesterday, explaining why causality is a fundamental condition in the universe and whether traveling in time is theoretically feasible. The idea of speeding around a black hole to advance in time is the theme of Brian Greene's wonderful book "Icarus at the Edge of Time" for children with the only difference that Icarus manages to travel faster forward than Hawking postulates (05/04/10).

  • The first planet has been detected which may support life under similar conditions as Earth. According to this estimate, a visit may not be entirely out of reach (09/30/10).
  • The possibilities of life different from ours seem boundless. Listen to today's report by Rebecca Davis and Christopher Joyce on National Public Radio's News with the title "The Deep-Sea Find that Changed Biology" on the discovery of lifeforms that thrive without oxygen in total darkness near deep sea vents (12/05/2011).
  • If you wish to join the Kepler team's search for exoplanets, you may visit (12/24/2011).

1 comment:

  1. This is a very thoughtful and stimulating post, Peter, but I don't see how it necessarily follows that finer temporal resolution goes hand-in-glove with higher intelligence.

    Human beings are inferior to other species in many specific traits. You mention the case of echolocating bats. Countless other examples could be named. This doesn't make us less intelligent than those other species; it just makes us different.

    It's possible, as a thought experiment, to imagine a sentient species on some other hospitable planet that, because of the particular features of its environment, has evolved very fine temporal resolution, yet still lags behind Homo sapiens in, let's say, its ability to solve complex mathematical problems, or to compose sonnets. These mental feats seems to me almost entirely unrelated to how fast we can resolve perceptions in real time.