Skip to content

A Second Human Singularity?

New Scientist
reports this week
claims that the reason human cognitive powers are so
superior to those of other animals has to do not with biology alone, but also
with our ability to interact with others and with the world.

researchers who hold this view contributed to ‘The Sapient Mind’, a recent
publication by the Royal Society. They claim that the biology of the human
brain stopped changing 60,000 to 70,000 years ago, after which other factors
dominated the development of our mental powers. The key factor was the recognition that other creatures have minds, which—along
with an increasing working memory—meant that humans became vastly more capable
than other animals of learning and teaching others. This new ability to learn paved the
way for the development of cultures and an increasing body of knowledge. As cultures developed and knowledge amassed,
people were able to assimilate more—and more sophisticated—information. Doing so can literally change the brain: one
of the most well-known examples of this is the way in which the brains of
London taxi drivers change as they memorise the street map of London (1).

It is
interesting to compare this story of the development of the human mind with the
concept of a singularity,
familiar from discussions of artificial intelligence. Some thinkers believe that, as artificial
intelligence grows more sophisticated, there will come a point in the future at
which artificial intelligence becomes capable of improving itself far
more quickly than its human creators could ever do. This would lead to a ‘singularity’: an explosion of intelligence, as self-improvements in
artificial intelligence enable further self-improvements, and so on. The effects of this could transform the world
we live in, for better or worse.

If the view
of the human mind held by some of the researchers published in ‘The Sapient
Mind’ is correct, we might see human development as having had its own
singularity. With the right biological
foundations laid, the relatively modest realisation that other creatures are
intelligent set in place a series of improvements which led to the often
spectacular sophistication of today’s human intelligence.

What does
the future hold for human intelligence?  There
is currently much discussion about cognitive enhancement.  Various promising
possibilities exist to improve pharmacologically our ability to remember,
concentrate, stay awake, understand, and reason (2).  It is easy to see how improvements in such abilities might make life better: the recent popularity of computer games that promise to improve cognitive abilities demonstrates how eager people are to improve their minds.  What is
less obvious, however, is that such improvements could mark only the
beginning. If our minds can develop in
the future in much the same way as—according to some—they have done in the
past, improvements in certain biological capacities could lay the groundwork
for far more impressive developments.  Just
as our distant ancestors’ realisation that others have minds played a key role in the development
of the minds that humans have today, pharmacological improvement
in our cognitive capacities could enable us to make insights—perhaps relatively
modest insights—that lead to further improvements that, today, we may barely be able
to conceive.



(1) Maguire,
E.A., D.G. Gadian, I.S. Johnsrude, C.D. Good, J. Ashburner, R.S.J. Frackowiak,
and C.D. Frith (2000) ‘Navigation-Related Structural Change in the Hippocampi
of Taxi Drivers
’, Proceedings of the
National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
97/8: 4398-4403.

(2) Bostrom, N. and Sandberg, A. (2007) ‘Cognitive
Enhancement: Methods, Ethics, Regulatory Challenges
’, Science and Engineering Ethics.

Share on