Sunday, March 6, 2011

Faster, Higher, Stronger .... Smarter?

The Olympic motto Citius, Altius, Fortius encapsulates the human will to achieve more but is there a limit? In a recent book 'The Perfection Point' author John Brenkens discusses the physical limitations of humans in various endeavours. In 1911 the men's 100 metre record stood at 10.5 seconds, today that record stands at 9.58 seconds by the ever entertaining Usain Bolt. Several different scientists put the theoretical limit for a human at anywhere between 9.45 and 9.35 seconds. Of course this does not account for some freak athlete which through some genetic abnormality can exceed this predefined limits. There is of course a limit but that limit is constantly shifting as we gain a better understand of the human body and how is maximize its potential. 

Bolt out on his own

The question arises is there a mental limit? I had this discussion at length a few weeks ago with a friend of mine. A lot of the discussion centered around the how we both defined evolution and progress. My argument is that we will quickly reach our limit as our progress will quickly catch up with evolution and we will find ourselves hindered by our intellect. My friend argued that evolution is moving at a greater pace than I though and that we are a long way off reaching our mental limit. I may be a little bias here but the areas of physics and mathematics are at the furthest reaches of human intellect. Research in physics has pushed the boundaries of our knowledge further than any other field of research. A glance at any of the leading journals in theoretical physics just show how far we have come. The question is as we explore the frontier of our knowledge will we reach a point where our brains do not have the required complexity to understand a problem or find its solution?

A good place to start with this problem is how complex is the human brain. Current estimates put the number of connections in the human brain at about 1 quadrillion (1015) connections. With an estimated peak performance of 100 million million instructions per second. For a comparison the latest Intel processor Core i7 has a performance rating of 160 thousand million instructions per second. Unlike the human brain they can not rearrange their physical connections so any real comparison isn't entirely fair but suffice to say the human brain far exceeds anything we can currently make. The human brain as complex as it is, is still finite in its capacity. 

Given the complexity of the human brain and the complexity of the problems we face in science will we be able to solve them before we reach our mental capacity? We could possible develop a quantum computer which could exceed our owns limits but then again the question arises can we program them with enough complexity to solve the problem? One solution may lie in genetic manipulation.

Evolution is generally a slow process where steps are measured in hundreds of lifetimes. Genetics may offer us a shortcut. We could potentially increase our mental capacity to overcome any shortcomings. However genetic manipulation opens up many more questions and problems. 

This of course could all be totally wrong as one day we may find the ultimate truth and be able to sum up all existence in one equation and then this renders my argument void. If that were to happen what else would there be left to do? Now that is a scary proposition.


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