Tag Archives: intelligence

A conversation about a virtual world and global extinction

Photograph of an octopusI went for a haircut a week or so ago and my barber asked me about the books I had been reading recently.  He always has a book on the shelf next to him and sometimes I find him reading when I arrive and the shop is quiet.  So it is not unusual for us to talk about our current books.  I told him about ‘Reality+: virtual worlds and the problems of philosophy’ by David Chalmers which led into a conversation about the possibility that we are in a simulation.  My posts on this topic [see ‘Are we in a simulation’ on September 28th 2022 and ‘Virtual digitalism’ on December 7th, 2022] have provoked a number of negative reactions.  People either think I have written nonsense or would rather not consider the prospect of us being part of a giant simulation.  Fortunately, my barber was happy to accept the possibility that we were part of a simulation which led to a discussion about whether our creator was the equivalent of a teenager playing on a computer in their bedroom or a scientist interested in the evolution of society; and, in either case, why they would have decided to give us hair on our heads that grows steadily throughout our life – perhaps as a personal indication of the passage of time or, simply to provide a living for barbers.  The development of human society and the use of probability to reason that a more advanced society might have created a virtual world in which we are living also led us to talk about the probability that a more advanced society finding us on Earth would annihilate us without pausing to learn about us in the same way that we are destroying all other forms of intelligent life on the planet.  For example, populations of vertebrates living in freshwater ecosystems have declined by 83% on average since 1970 [see World Wide Fund for Nature Living Planet Report 2022].  Maybe it would be preferable for someone to switch off the simulation rather than to suffer the type of invasion mounted by the Martians in the War of the Worlds by HG Wells.

Regular readers with good memories might recall a post entitled ‘Conversations about engineering over dinner and a haircut’ on February 16th, 2022 which featured the same barber who I visit more frequently than these two posts might imply.

The image shows Ollie the Octopus at the Ocean Lab, (Ceridwen CC BY-SA 2.0) for more on the intelligence of an octopus see ‘Intelligent aliens?‘ on January 16th, 2019.

Amplified intelligence

Decorative imageNotebooks have been used for centuries to extend people’s minds while computers and smart phones have taken the extension to a new level.  I find myself using the more than 500 posts in this blog as an extension of my brain.  Not only to recall information but to reconstruct thought processes and ideas.  Perhaps it is idleness or just faster than waiting for my neurons to shuffle through options until they reassemble the pattern that I am looking for.  Of course, this blog is a very public extension of my mind and was accessed from more than 140 countries last year, as it has been every year since 2016, based on data from WordPress.  It is difficult to estimate the total readership of the blog because it is published through several media but last year it appeared to increase substantially.  I started posting in July 2012 [see ‘Why RealizeEngineering?‘] but only started weekly posts ten years ago this week on January 7th 2013 with ‘Renewable Energy?‘.  Today’s post is number 548.

A cyberneticist, W. Ross Ashby coined the term ‘amplified intelligence’ to describe the role of computers in extending our minds [W. Ross Ashby, An Introduction to Cybernetics, William Clowes & Sons, 1956].

Image: Painting in the possession of the author.

When will you be replaced by a computer?

I have written before about extending our minds by using external computing power in our mobile phones [see ‘Science fiction becomes virtual reality‘ on October 12th, 2016; and ‘Thinking out of the skull‘ on March 18th, 2015]; but, how about replacing our brain with a computer?  That’s the potential of artificial intelligence (AI); not literally replacing our brain, but at least taking over jobs that are traditionally believed to require our brain-power.  For instance, in a recent test, an AI lawyer found 95% of the loopholes in a non-disclosure agreement in 22 seconds while a group of human lawyers found only 88% in 90 minutes, according to Philip Delves Broughton in the FT last weekend.

If this sounds scary, then consider for a moment the computing power involved.  Lots of researchers are interested in simulating the brain and it has been estimated that the computing power required is around hundred peta FLOPS (FLoating point Operations Per Second), which conveniently, is equivalent to the world’s most powerful computers.  At the time of writing the world’s most powerful computer was ‘Summit‘ at the US Oak Ridge National Laboratory, which is capable of 200 petaFLOPS.  However, simulating the brain is not the same as reproducing its intelligence; and petaFLOPS are not a good measure of intelligence because while ‘Summit’ can multiply many strings of numbers together per second, it would take you and me many minutes to multiply two strings of numbers together giving us a rating of one hundredth of a FLOP or less.

So, raw computing power does not appear to equate to intelligence, instead intelligence seems to be related to our ability to network our neurons together in massive assemblies that flicker across our brain interacting with other assemblies [see ‘Digital hive mind‘ on November 30th, 2016]. We have about 100 billion neurons compared with the ‘Summit’ computer’s 9,216 CPUs (Central Processing Unit) and 27,648 GPUs (Graphic Processing Units); so, it seems unlikely that it will be able to come close to our ability to be creative or to handle unpredictable situations even accounting for the multiple cores in the CPUs.  In addition, it requires a power input of 13MW or a couple of very large wind turbines, compared to 80W for the base metabolic rate of a human of which the brain accounts for about 20%; so, its operating costs render it an uneconomic substitute for the human brain in activities that require intelligence.  Hence, while computers and robots are taking over many types of jobs, it seems likely that a core group of jobs involving creativity, unpredictability and emotional intelligence will remain for humans for the foreseeable future.


Max Tegmark, Life 3.0 – being human in the age of artificial intelligence, Penguin Books, 2018.

Philip Delves Broughton, Doom looms over the valley, FT Weekend, 16 November/17 November 2019.

Engelfriet, Arnoud, Creating an Artificial Intelligence for NDA Evaluation (September 22, 2017). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3039353 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3039353

See also NDA Lynn at https://www.ndalynn.com/

Why playing the piano might enhance our intelligence?

By National Institutes of Health [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Students and lecturers leave all sorts of things in lecture theatres, including lecture notes, pens and water bottles, that accumulate around the edges like flotsam on the beach because no one wants to throw away something for which the owner might return.  A few weeks ago, I found the front page of a letter published in Nature which roused my curiosity. Its title was ‘Verbal and non-verbal intelligence changes in the teenage brain’.  My memories of my teenage years are almost uniformly bad; in part because I was unable to reproduce the academic promise that I had shown when I was younger and the pressure to do so was unrelenting.  I suspect that my experience is not uncommon and the research described in this letter offers a potential explanation for my inability to ace examinations regardless of how hard I tried.

The conventional understanding of human intellectual capacity is that it is constant during our life. However, the authors of this article have shown that the statistics, upon which this understanding is based, hide a variation in our teenage years; because some teenagers experience a reduction and some an increase in intellectual capacity, which leaves the population’s average unchanged.

In addition, using structural and functional imaging, they were able to correlate changes in verbal IQ with changes in grey matter density in a region of the brain activated by speech (the left motor cortex), and changes in non-verbal IQ with changes in grey matter density in regions activated by finger movements (the anterior cerebellum).

The timeline of the reported research does not extend far enough to establish whether or not the changes seen in teenagers is temporary; however, my anecdotal evidence suggests that might be the case.  I would conclude that the effort used to apply psychological pressure on teenagers to ace examinations might be better expended on piano lessons and piano practice to enhance sensorimotor skills which are strongly correlated to cognitive intelligence – but I suspect many parents have already worked that one out!


Ramsden S, Richardson FM, Josse G, Thomas MSC, Ellis C, Shakeshaft C, Seghier ML & Price CJ, Verbal and non-verbal intelligence changes in the teenage brain, Nature, 479:113-116, 2011.