William H. Calvin, "Brains and the World of 2025." Potomac Institute for Policy Studies conference, Washington DC, 27 June 2000. See also http://WilliamCalvin.com/2000/2025brainsDC.htm.
Webbed Lecture Collection|
William H. Calvin
University of Washington
Brains and the World of 2025
have two tales to tell. Well, maybe three. Presently
I will get to the good news concerning what knowledge of the brain will do to
education and training by 2025, making adults far more mentally capable than
most of us are now, with all its implications for warfare and other less lethal
forms of competition.
first, the bad news. Bill Joy of
Sun Microsystems, in his WIRED article a few months ago, had a lot to say on the
subject of robotic trends. And at
the recent Highlands Forum meeting, which some of you probably attended, Bill
Joy was quoting something that I said in response to his article, so let me tell
the whole story now in fuller detail.
easy to see the slower insidious trends about robots competing with humans, but
I tend to agree with what Danny Hillis said about them in his response to Bill
Joy: We’ll get used to it.
I’d worry a lot more about the low-percentage possibilities, about the
sociopathic outliers rather than the main trends.
so the bad news bit is about how brain malfunctions
will cause big trouble -
not because the average brain will have changed for the worse, but because of
changes in what just one person will be able to accomplish with rare but bad
Bill Joy introduced the subject, “We’re lucky Kaczynski was a mathematician,
not a molecular biologist.” Most
of the mentally ill are harmless. Those
who aren’t are usually too dysfunctional to do organized harm; if they plan
it, they get distracted along the way. But
I’d point out that there is a class of people with what we call “delusional
disorder” who can remain employed and pretty functional for decades, despite
their jealous-grandiose-paranoid-somatic delusions.
Like the Unabomber, they usually don’t seek medical attention, making
their numbers hard to estimate. Even
if they are only one percent in the population (and I’ve seen much higher
estimates), that’s still about 20,000 delusional people in the DC area, and
don’t have to be mentally ill to do malicious things, and few of the mentally
ill do them, but in an anonymous big city one percent of sociopaths or
delusional types is sure different from one percent in a small town, where
everyone knows one another and word gets around to humor them and take
precautions. And bare fists are
sure different from the same person equipped with technology.
Note I didn’t say high technology, though that makes the
situation much worse.
we’ve seen several times in recent years, it doesn’t take special skills or
intelligence to create the fuel-oil-and-fertilizer bombs. You don’t even have
to be delusional, just mean. Many
fewer of the delusional will have the intelligence or education to intentionally
create sustained or widespread harm from biological or info-network terrorism.
Even if that number is only one percent of the one percent, it’s still
a pool of 200 high-performing sociopathic or delusional techies just in the DC
area alone (and you can scale that up to the nation - 20,000 - and to
the world). That bad things happen
so infrequently from the few Unabomber or terrorist types among them isn’t too
comforting when the capability of that tiny fraction is growing enormously with
our technologies. Small relative
numbers still add up to enough absolute numbers to be worrisome, given the
biological terrorism that will become possible, given the high densities at
which people crowd themselves these days. Ditto
for network mischief and terrorism.
generally, the issue here is managing rare-but-high-risk situations, and few
people in our society know the art and science of high-risk management.
In the military and in medicine, people are at least trained in the
subject at the higher levels, but politicians and the public often look only at
average trends, not the outliers.
can provide your own military examples, but let me say that there are many
everyday examples in medicine of where you worry more about the off-chance,
those situations where treatments must be promptly started for a condition that
isn’t the most likely disease. You
might have a set of signs and symptoms and lab findings for which there is an
80% chance of a mild outcome, but with a 20% chance of a disease that can kill
you in six months, like lymphoma. And
with the diagnosis still uncertain, you are likely to get treated with
chemotherapy “just in case.” The
physician who waits until “dead certain” of a diagnosis may well wind up
with a dead patient.
it may be with civilizations. Considering
the minority possibilities, and acting on still-incomplete knowledge, is likely
going to be the name of the game. Fatalism,
which is essentially what Bill Joy is describing among the technologists, is one
way of dealing with the future. But with it may go an abdication of
responsibility for seeing that things go on and that everything turns out well.
future is arriving more quickly than it used to.
But our reaction times are as slow as ever, given how long it takes
(thirty years so far in the case of the greenhouse) to educate politicians and
to build political consensus for taking effective action.
This makes foresight more important than ever.
We should have started in on greenhouse gases a hundred years ago. I will come back to this point about improving foresight, if
now for the good news, at least good if we don’t flub
it and big inequalities start appearing in the world, for someone to take
advantage of, by making war rather than, well, trade pacts.
gets framed in surprisingly narrow terms most of the time, as if it were some
more-is-better number that could be assigned to a person in the manner of a
batting average. It has always been
measured by a varied series of subtests that give you a sampling of spatial
abilities, verbal comprehension, word fluency, number facility, inductive
reasoning, perceptual speed, deductive reasoning, rote memory, and the like.
In recent decades, there has been a tendency to talk about these various
subtests as ``multiple intelligences.’‘
Indeed, why conflate these abilities by trying to boil intelligence down
to a single number like IQ?
The short answer is that the single number seems to tell us something
while hazardous when overgeneralized, it's an interesting bit of information.
Here’s why: Doing well on
one kind of intelligence subtest never predicts that you'll do poorly on
another; one ability never seems to be at the expense of another.
Rather, an individual who does well on any one test will often perform
better than average on the other subtests.
It's as if there were some common factor at work, such as test-taking ability. The so-called `` general factor g’‘ expresses this interesting correlation between subtests. The psychologist Arthur Jensen likes to point out that the two strongest influences on g are speed (such as how many questions you can answer in a fixed amount of time) and the number of items you can mentally juggle at the same time. Analogy questions (A is to B as C is to [D, E, F]) typically require at least six concepts to be kept in mind simultaneously and compared. Some people can manage eight, but those who can manage only five don’t score very well on questions that presuppose six.
Together, they make high IQ sound like a job description for a high-volume short-order cook, juggling the preparation of six different meals at the same time, hour after hour. Or a barista at your favorite Seattle-coffeeshop clone, keeping all the verbal orders straight (I wish someone would tell me what making airplanes, espresso, software, grunge, and higher education all have in common; maybe they all thrive on the Seattle rain). Most of us can manage a half-dozen mental objects at the same time, even seven digit phone numbers. We have trouble with ten digits, and certainly 15-digit international numbers. We have to write the longer ones down to keep from scrambling them.
Intelligence is much more than just IQ score, and intelligence itself is only one aspect of a mix of any individual’s important personal traits. Thus high IQ might be without significance for the kind of lives that most people lead, or important only on those rare occasions demanding a particularly quick versatility. In our society, a high IQ is usually necessary to perform well in very complex or fluid jobs (for example, being a doctor), and high IQ is an advantage in moderately complex occupations (secretarial or police work), but it provides little advantage in work that requires only routine, unhurried decision making or simple problem solving (for example, for clerks and cashiers, whose reliability and social skills are likely to be far more important than their speed-and-numbers IQ).
And high IQ may be helpful, but not essential, for professors and the like. We can usually think about a problem for a week before deciding. We don’t have to make a lot of decisions in a 15-minute office visit like a physician does. And sometimes the quality is higher when you dwell longer on the problem. Speed can be addictive. We’ve all seen physicians in a hurry to move on to the next problem, they like things snap-snap-snap. “Keeping busy?” seems to be their favorite greeting to one another.
While it’s only part of intelligence in our everyday sense of the word,
let me focus on the two things. The
speed of decision making. And the
number of mental balls you can keep in the air at the same time.
Now, suppose we could enhance either or both through training,
particularly in youth -
training based on a scientific knowledge of how the brain actually works.
Very little education or training is currently based on any scientific
knowledge of brain mechanisms. But
that will change by 2025. Let me
give you some examples from medicine.
Two centuries ago, medicine was largely empirical; vaccination for
smallpox was invented in 1796, and the circulation of the blood was known, but
that’s about it. Digitalis was
used for congestive heart failure because someone tried it and it worked. Or so they thought. They
often thought incorrectly, and it took forever to get rid of bleeding and
purging. Generations of physicians
were convinced they worked, but now we know they just prevented suffering by
killing patients more quickly than the disease would have done.
Even when they guessed correctly, these physicians didn’t know how
their treatment worked, the physiological mechanism of the drug action or
vaccination. When you do understand
mechanism, you can make all sorts of improvements or guess far better schemes.
That’s what adding science gets you.
One century ago, medicine was still largely empirical and only maybe a
tenth had been modified by science; now it is more like half and half.
Today, education and training are largely empirical and only slightly
scientific. We know some empirical truths, like the traditional advice to
briefing officers (tell them what you’re going to tell them, then tell them,
then tell them what you’ve just told them).
But we don’t know how the successful ones are implemented in the
brain, and thus we don’t know rational ways of improving on them.
In another quarter-century, education will be half empirical and half
scientific in the manner of medicine today. We will not only know more
about what works, but we’ll know why it works and where in the brain it does
it. We will thus know when to rehearse, when to present new material, when
to play around, and how to consolidate progress.
Imagine teaching machines used to tailor the presentation of new material
and the repetition of old. Just
extrapolate from your favorite touch-typing software to, say, learning how to
juggle a dozen mental objects at once instead of only a half-dozen.
I suggest that this will change everything.
We'll look the same as newborns but as adults we will be far more
Consider those major elements of IQ that I mentioned, sheer speed and the
number of mental balls that you can keep in the air.
Suppose we knew, on a scientific basis from brain mapping during training
or some such, how to speed up quality decision making.
Or how to expand the number of balls
in the air, so we could juggle 15 elements at once.
Just imagine an officer or physician able to juggle twice the average
number of mental objects. They’ll
think their way around the competition. And
if they also did it twice as fast, you’ll be able to spot them from across the
room, as a real standout. You all
know how parents fight to get their kids into good schools now.
Well, just imagine the competition for a school that had the techniques
to routinely turn out such standouts. And
imagine the differences between a country with such an educational system for
youth and adults, and a country still stuck with empirical techniques like
There will be some other hazards as well, when we start educating
effectively for speed and numbers. We
won’t have cured the more-is-better fallacy.
Physicians in ancient Greece were
familiar with the tendency of patients to think that if some was good, more was
surely better -- thereby converting a useful medicinal herb into a deadly
Faster is better could have its problems, too, especially in early childhood education. Speaking in complete sentences by 11 months of age, rather than 36 months, could turn out to preempt some later developmental stages. We might see a result much like that blues lament, about when “Your mind is on vacation while your mouth is working overtime.”
You have to remember that fast is always relative to some other speed, and to a particular point of view. Both are well illustrated by the story of the two guys being chased by the bear - you don’t have to run faster than the bear, only faster than the other guy, and only for a little while. And so all these mental improvements are just as capable of destabilizing the world as more familiar forms of technology. We have to worry about it for all the same reasons as why we worry about the information technology have-nots.
Now [time permitting] a few final words about foresight, and how badly we’re going to need it. Maybe those improvements in mental juggling ability will help more people think productively so as to head off trouble before it happens. My favorite example involves what we need to do about abrupt climate change. And no, I don’t mean the gradual greenhouse warming over the next few centuries, ramping up like a dimmer switch. I mean mode-switching climate change, like an ordinary light switch flips from one stable state to another, very quickly. Such abrupt climate change is what could set off a series of wars that could, in about a decade’s time, dramatically reduce the human population and largely destroy civilization as we know it.
Since the greenhouse warming was discovered about thirty years ago, the geophysics folks have also discovered that climate can abruptly cool in just several years, ushering in a madhouse century of climate jitters. Climate has several stable states, just like a flickering fluorescent light tube, and the transitions can be very fast, abruptly cooling and abruptly rewarming. They’ve happened frequently, every few thousand years on average (though not in the last 11,000 years). And what we know of the underlying oceanographic and atmospheric mechanisms suggests that greenhouse warming could set off one of these disastrous cool droughts. As Ray Pierrehumbert recently said in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences , the February 15 issue where you’ll find a series of articles on the subject, "If one is tugging on the dragon's tail with little notion of how much agitation is required to wake him, one must be prepared for the unexpected."
Our world is now so crowded that it is dreadfully dependent on high agricultural productivity and efficient supply lines. Were a cold flip to happen now, much of civilization would be ruined over the next decade in a series of wars over the remaining food. With death all around, life would become cheap. Millions of humans would survive but what would be left would be in a series of small countries under despotic rule, all hating their neighbors for good reasons because of mutual atrocities during the downsizing. Recovery from such antagonistic gridlock would be very slow, Balkanization writ large.
Surprisingly, these large fast climate changes may be easier to prevent than a greenhouse warming or an El Niño. Maybe. That’s the good news. I reported on this several years ago in a cover story that I wrote for The Atlantic Monthly called “The great climate flip-flop.” While such abrupt coolings and worldwide droughts have happened hundreds of times in the past several million years, their Gulf-Stream-shutdown mechanism is so simple and so localized that it is, at least, conceivable that we could stabilize it over the next century and so buy time, heading off much trouble.
Climate scientists don’t talk in such terms yet, and indeed they have not had to cope with managing high-risk situations because, heretofore, they’ve had few interventions to offer. As that changes, thanks to the magnificent science now being done on climate, they’ll need some appreciation for how to manage situations described 2,500 years ago by the Hippocratic aphorism, “Life is short, the art long, opportunity fleeting, experience treacherous, judgment difficult. The physician must be ready [to act].” It’s a good motto for politicians and the military too, especially that “opportunity fleeting” bit.
The Future’s Intelligence Test for Humans
has been 8,200 years since an abrupt cooling of even half the magnitude of the big ones (the Little Ice Age starting
about 700 years ago was an order of magnitude smaller).
Everything we know about the geophysical mechanisms (see Broecker 1999,
Calvin 1998a) suggests that another abrupt cooling-drought could easily happen
– indeed, it looks as if our greenhouse-effect warming could trigger an abrupt
cooling in several different ways.
Because such a cooling would occur too quickly for us to make
readjustments in agricultural productivity and associated supply lines, it would
be a potentially civilization-shattering affair, likely to cause a population
crash far worse than those seen in the wars and plagues of history.
The best understood part of the flip-flop tendencies involves what
happens to the warm Gulf Stream waters, with the flow of about a hundred Amazon
Rivers, once they split off Ireland into the two major branches of the North
Atlantic Current. They sink to the depths of the Greenland-Norwegian Sea and the
Labrador Sea because so much evaporation takes place (warming up the cold dry
winds from Canada, and eventually Europe, so that it is unlike Canada and
Siberia) that the surface waters become cold and hypersaline – and therefore
more dense than the underlying waters.
At some sinking sites, giant whirlpools 15 km in diameter can be found,
carrying surface waters down into the depths.
Routinely flushing the cold waters in this manner makes room for more
warm waters to flow far north.
But this flushing mechanism can fail if fresh water accumulates on the surface, diluting the dense waters. The increased rainfall that occurs with global warming causes more rain to fall into the oceans at the high latitudes. Ordinarily, rain falling into the ocean is not a problem -- but at these sites in the Labrador and Greenland-Norwegian Seas, it can be catastrophic. So can meltwater from the nearby Greenland ice cap, especially when it comes out in surges. By shutting down the high-latitude parts of this “Nordic Heat Pump,” these consequences of global warming can abruptly change Europe’s climate. If Europe’s agriculture reverted to the productivity of Canada’s (at the same latitudes but lacking a preheating for winds off the Pacific Ocean), 22 out of 23 Europeans would starve.
The surprise was that it isn’t just Europe that gets hit hard.
Most of the habitable parts of the world have similarly cooled during
past episodes. Another failure
would cause a population crash that would take much of civilization with it, all
within a decade.
Ways to postpone such a climatic shift are conceivable, however — cloud-seeding to create rain shadows in critical locations is just one possibility. Although we can't do much about everyday weather or greenhouse warming, we may nonetheless be able to stabilize the climate enough to prevent an abrupt cooling.
Devising a long-term scheme for stabilizing the flushing mechanism has now become one of the major tasks of our civilization, essential to prevent a drastic downsizing whose wars over food would leave a world where everyone hated their neighbors for good reasons. Human levels of intelligence allow us both foresight and rational planning. Civilization has enormously expanded our horizons, allowing us to look far into the past and learn from it. But it remains to be seen whether humans are capable of passing this intelligence test that the climate sets for us.