Wednesday, March 2, 2011

A Smarter Planet

A few weeks ago, an IBM-designed computer program, Watson, defeated several human contestants on Jeopardy. This was hailed by many as a triumph. In its commercials, IBM featured the program's chief engineer, pronouncing the company's new mantra: "Let's build a smarter planet."

I've been mulling over why this disturbs me so much. For what it's worth, here's what I've come up with.

Humans, being human, have tended to measure intelligence in absolute terms, with ourselves as the sole and final standard. Thus anything that possesses an intelligence functionally akin to ours--say, chimpanzees and dolphins--is "smart," while the farther you get from that standard--from birds to lizards to jellyfish--the farther you get from intelligence. God, being the smartest of all, is simply an uber-human, with an extension of our own capabilities: he knows everything, sees far into the future, etc. Being smart, according to this way of thinking, is an abstraction; it has nothing to do with the organism that houses it, much less with the conditions and contexts within which that organism exists. You're either smart like us, or you're dumb.

But this is, in my view, a radically reductive--and dangerous--understanding of intelligence. Intelligence, as I'll define it, has little to do with human-ness. Rather, it has to do with adaptation.

Birds and reptiles, for example, aren't particularly "smart" by human standards; in fact, we tend to think of their brains as the most "primitive" aspect of our own. Partly, that's an evolutionary description, but it's also an evaluation: the least evolved part of the brain, the part that has the earliest evolutionary emergence, is also the least "smart." (Hence the expression "bird-brain.") And indeed, were you to place a bird or reptile in a situation requiring human intelligence, they'd fail miserably. Put them in front of a closed door, for example, and (even were they possessed of opposable thumbs) the most they'd do is stare listlessly at it.

But the evolutionary progenitors of birds and reptiles, we are told, were very "smart." Dinosaurs ruled the earth for millions of years, and in modern theorizing and modern storytelling such as Jurassic Park, their intelligence compares favorably with our own. Put a Velociraptor in front of a closed door, and it figures out how to use its claws and snout to open it.

My guess, however, is that if you actually put a Velociraptor in front of a closed door, it would have no more idea what to do with it than a modern-day parakeet. That's because, having spent millions of years adapting to a particular environment, a doorless environment, its intelligence would not extend to an environment to which it was not adapted. Over time, given the opportunity, this misfit might eventually figure out what to do with doors. But initially, a creature "smart" enough to survive infinitely longer than we've managed to thus far would appear quite "dumb" when thrown into a world some other creature's intelligence had built.

The same applies for birds and reptiles. They're not particularly smart by our standards, but they are supremely well adapted to their environments. In the absence of major disruption, in the absence of the equivalent of our poor Velociraptor being thrown into an alien world, they thrive without much "smarts" that we would recognize. But as soon as the environments in which their intelligences evolved are disrupted--mostly by humans--they die in droves. Just like their "smart" dinosaur forebears, who died without a wimper when the climate changed and the meteor struck, modern-day organisms are only as "smart" as the environments to which they are adapted allow them to be.

We humans tend to forget this. We believe we're so smart we can adapt to anything--even the drastically new environments we've created for ourselves. If our smarts get us into a jam, if they produce environmental disasters we weren't godlike enough to predict, no problem--we'll just build an even smarter planet that addresses these issues.

It should be evident by now that it doesn't work this way. In fact, it works exactly in the reverse. The more we engineer our planet in an effort to address the perceived and actual shortcomings we've either abided or produced, the farther we drive our world from the intelligence that was adapted to it. The "smarter" we make our planet, the less readily our own smarts can deal with the results.

We don't need a smarter planet. We need a planet to which we're adapted, a planet on which our bodies and brains can survive: a planet in which the global climate remains within the range we evolved to tolerate, a planet in which we don't dredge up radioactive waste every time we force fracking fluid into the shale, a planet in which mercury and other toxins don't concentrate in the fatty tissues of fetuses, a planet in which the other species with which we co-evolved and co-adapted aren't driven to mass extinction by our activities. A "dumber" planet, perhaps--a planet with fewer Watsons and Ipods--but a planet that can sustain the creatures whose intelligence it shaped for these millions of years.

We've already built a smarter planet--a planet smarter than us, in fact. And it turns out that was pretty dumb.

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