Wednesday, July 5, 2023


    Flowers for Algernon is one of my favorite books of all time. The plot is simple: a mentally retarded man is given a drug that makes him smarter, until he becomes a genius. This storyline is repeated in a few other forms of media, probably most famously in the movie Limitless, a film about another man given a pill that makes him smarter. In both of these stories, the main character instantly becomes superior to other humans. We read these stories, and realize instantly that the smartest person in the world could probably be the most powerful. After a certain number of standard deviations upward, it is pretty obvious that such an individual could exercise an extremely large amount of control on the world. In a 1991 short story by Ted Chiang, titled "Understand," superintelligence is shown in an even more convincing fashion. The main character in the story exhibits the highest level of intelligence, and he determines that the only path towards further intelligence would require his mind being uploaded into a computer.

    Let's clarify a few things. One: our minds are basically pink mush. We evolved randomly from the swamp, and due to the anthropic principle (observation selection effect) we can sit around and think about our lives abstractly. Two: there is clearly an upper limit on the computations that a physical substrate such as the human brain can handle. Our minds were not designed for intelligence outright, and they are made out of mush. Three: computers probably don't have these limitations. We haven't found anything particularly special about the human brain, and given enough time we can probably replicate something similar in a computer. Brains don't act like anything super weird (quantum computers), and our progress towards AGI doesn't show signs of slowing. Despite all of this, many people still discount the power that a superintelligent being will have over humanity. Maybe we should make books like those mentioned above required reading. Then, maybe humanity will begin to Understand!

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