Smartness is a zero-sum game


In her article “The Internet of Way Too Many Things,” Allison Arleff reviews some of the exciting new products on display at Target’s trendy Open House store in San Francisco. There’s Leeo, a night light “that ‘listens’ for your smoke detector to go off and then calls your smartphone to let you know your house might be on fire.” There’s Whistle, a $100 doggie dongle that “attaches to your pet’s collar and allows you to set a daily activity goal customized to your dog’s age, breed and weight.” And there’s Mimo, a web-enabled onesie that monitors your baby’s “body position” during the night. “When Mimo is connected to other devices in your home and discerns that your baby is stirring,” reports Arleff, “the lights turn on, coffee begins brewing and some Baby Mozart starts playing on the stereo.”

Welcome to Peter Thiel’s “innovation desert.” You’ll die of thirst, but at least the mirages are amusing.

There’s something else going on here, though, something deeper than the production of trinkets for neurotics. Each of these products is an example of a defining trend of our networked age:  the outsourcing of common sense to gadgetry. A foundational level of human perception and competence is being mechanized through apps and online services. The more mediated our lives become, the more we rely on media to make sense of the world for us. We can’t even trust ourselves to take Rover for a walk.

I would like to modestly propose a hypothesis that I think explains a lot about the way we live today:

Smartness is a zero-sum game.

I call it the Law of the Conservation of Intelligence. There is a fixed amount of intelligence in the world, and every time we think we’re creating new intelligence, what we’re actually doing is just redistributing the intelligence that’s already there.

Take the so-called Internet of Things. When we imbue an inanimate object, a thing, with smartness, we’re not conjuring up that smartness out of nothing. We’re simply transferring a bit of smartness that already exists, in our own minds, into the thing. IBM tells us that we’re building a Smarter Planet, but what IBM doesn’t say, at least not in its marketing materials, is that as the planet gets smarter its occupants get dumber.

If you’re struggling to follow my line of thought here, let me offer you a simple, easy-to-understand graphic:


Arleff describes another new product that provides a practical illustration of my point. The product is called Refuel. It’s a “black plastic sensor-enabled ring that monitors your propane tank levels and sends you notifications when propane is low.” Running out of propane when a hot dog is only half done is frustrating, and it can ruin a good cookout and even result in social embarrassment. To avoid this situation, owners of gas grills will often, through their own innate resources, develop a means of gauging the amount of gas left in a tank. Some will, for instance, lift the tank and judge its fullness by its weight. Others will tap the tank, judging its fullness by the sound it makes. These are simple examples of how a person, through experience dealing with the sometimes irritating stuff of the world, gains the intelligence necessary to operate successfully in the world. But as soon as you introduce a black plastic sensor-enabled ring that buzzes your smartphone when the tank’s low, you remove the need to grapple with the mysteries of the propane tank and hence are also relieved of the opportunity to develop insight into the nature of such tanks. The intelligence that would have lodged in your own mind is instead transferred into the thing.

Now, I know that the Law of the Conservation of Intelligence will be controversial. It’s nothing if not counterintuitive. We have long taken it for granted that intelligence behaves not like energy but like the universe itself: it just keeps expanding. Intelligence is perpetually tumescent. For proof, we often point to the famous Flynn Effect. This is the discovery that, throughout most of the twentieth century, IQ scores steadily increased. Surely, the Flynn Effect shows that the sum total of intelligence is expanding.

Actually, though, the Flynn Effect is just another illustration of the Law of the Conservation of Intelligence. As James Flynn, the political scientist who discovered the effect, has explained, what the Flynn Effect really shows is a redistribution of intelligence, not a growth of intelligence. One way of being smart — the way required to do well on IQ tests — goes up, but other ways of being smart go down. We aren’t “more intelligent” than our ancestors, Flynn has said, but rather we have “learnt to apply our intelligence to a new set of of problems.” We have, to be precise, “detached logic from the concrete.”

So, for instance, we may be much better than our great-grandparents at answering a multiple choice question like this:

“A tractor is to a farmer as a hammer is to a ________.”

A. Turkey
B. Carpenter
C. Nail

But our great-grandparents would be much better than we are at diagnosing and fixing an actual malfunctioning tractor. We can do analogies till the cows come home, but if our tractor breaks down in the middle of a field, we’re fucked. We’ve shifted intelligence from that part of our brain labeled “common sense about real tractors” to the one labeled “abstract reasoning about conceptual tractors.”

This is probably one of the reasons why per-capita ownership of tractors has gone down sharply over the years while per-capita consumption of plastic containers of triple-washed baby lettuce leaves has gone way up. In a decades-long process of intelligence redistribution, the crop-growing knowledge that was once distributed widely among the population was first concentrated into the minds of a small group of specialists and then transferred into machines. You can, today, be too dim to know how to wash lettuce, and yet you can still have a perfectly nice salad.

There have recently been signs that the Flynn Effect is petering out. IQ scores are stagnating, or even slipping, in some developed countries. Here in the United States, we’re seeing a steady erosion of intelligence measures as reflected in the results of SAT tests — even as classrooms are outfitted with all manner of “smart technology.” This, too, makes sense when seen through the lens of my hypothesis. Thanks to machine learning and other artificial-intelligence techniques, computers are getting better at analytical tasks. So as we become more reliant on machines for abstract thinking, our own ability to think abstractly shrinks, just as our own ability to think concretely has already withered. The cloud gets smarter; our own minds get cloudier. Thus is intelligence conserved.

12 thoughts on “Smartness is a zero-sum game

  1. Charles

    For $40 you can buy the Refuel gadget to warn you the LP gas tank is almost empty. Or for $30 you can buy a second tank full of LP gas and just swap it when you run out. Then you never care if your tank is almost empty.

    I think I must disagree with your theory of the Conservation of Intelligence. It is obvious that the inverse of intelligence is stupidity. It is my conjecture that intelligence is finite, but stupidity is infinite (cf. Charles’ Law of Infinite Stupidity). For intelligence to be conserved, stupidity must also be conserved. But this is impossible. There will always be an infinite supply of stupid ideas like the Refuel device. But this is currently the province of humanity alone, only humans can come up with uniquely stupid ideas, like for example a bluetooth sensor to indicate my shoelaces are untied (I just came up with that one now. Patent Pending).

    So to balance the Conservation of Intelligence, I am calling for a grand initiative. It will take decades of research engaging the minds of the most intelligent, and the most stupid people. We must create true machine-based Artificial Stupidity. Any idiot can make a computer that says 2+2=5. But to create a truly stupid thinking machine would be the culmination of human achievement.

  2. Noah Dunn

    What do you think is the best strategy to resist this trend? To me, it seems that we should take regular digital sabbaths, start new hobbies that require manual skill, and think really, really hard about how much we need the gadgets being peddled. But then again, these strategies probably only apply outside the workplace. It’s hard to imagine telling your boss that he shouldn’t automate something in order for you to exercise your neurons.

    It’s somewhat disturbing to think that people might get worse at both commonsense and abstract reasoning. Society would be truly infantile at that point. Even things like emotional intelligence might erode if people start using apps to gauge their compatibility with a partner or read their stress levels, etc. What is the human mind left with at that point? creativity? But how long before that’s automatized?

    Each little automating device and/or program is benign in and of itself. But when you have thousands of programmers working independently around the world, the accumulative effect of their efforts could very well be a society full of somewhat dull, slightly incompetent, unwise and unimaginative people.

    But then again, the Donald’s popularity might just mean we’ve already arrived at that society.

  3. Daniel B le Roux

    While the idea of finite universal intelligence is conceptually appealing, I find it difficult to agree with the principle. I think it is not the volume of intelligence, but the nature of intelligence which should be considered. May it be that, through our efforts to simulate human intelligence in machines, we are inadvertently cultivating human cognition which simulates machines? Is it possible that continuous engagement with ubiquitous “intelligent” things can transform human cognition to become machine-like? While humans are creating “artificial” intelligence, machines are creating superficial intelligence.

  4. Christopher B.

    The tractor example seems to get the causality a bit off. The loss of such practical knowledge about tractors is because we’ve moved away from farms and agricultural jobs, so there’s no need to maintain such knowledge. In other words, that loss is mostly a result and not a cause of that per-capita ownership of tractors decline.

  5. Steve Mittelstaedt

    I think you are on to something here, although the graph might be a curve in some sort of line boundary (for the humans, at least).

    There is likely a baseline of intelligence we need to just feed ourselves and just go out the front door in the morning. But where the zero-sum comes from is the number of possible neural pathways in our brain. This has has to have an outside boundary and the intelligence of things is freeing up useable space.

    Swapping one use of those pathways for another might not be a problem if the swap was for something truly useful. Like swapping out the ancient capacity for oratory in exchange for deep reading. The problem is that now we’re swapping our common sense about things for Angry Birds and Candy Crush.

  6. Brad

    Yes, but if I’m out sourcing my sense work and thereby, according to your theory, just transferring my intelligence — it was right here but now it’s over there — a zero sum transaction — how do we know that we are not freeing up sensory bandwidth which might now be used in the service of new kinds of skills, new kinds of pursuits, new kinds of sensing?

  7. Arvind Bakshi

    One simple reason is the base hardware (brain structure), has not changed over last thousands of years. However with outsourcing, specialization and collaboration our race has come a long way from being an insignificant species to top of the food chain to dominating planet and beyond. Though average individual intelligence has not increased, the collective intelligence of our race has seen big leap. In opinion bigger questions are:
    1. Do we want to call it as a progress? We have been replacing the old issues with the new ones at each stage.
    2. The distribution of benefits of the collective smartness is for sure unequal and getting worse.

  8. diane

    whoah, hadn’t checked after the August silence, you’ve been busy.

    Have meant, for some time now, to do a bit of a comment as to how unavailable books such as yours (as was/is Paulina Borsook’s, way early warning, … long forgotten, Cyberselfish: A Critical Romp Through the Terribly Libertarian Culture of High-Tech), are not on the shelves of many of the [California/Golden State[!]] Public Libraries – at least one of which is conveniently located right across from the police station, at the ready to shoo off homeless persons who were born in the area, and once could afford to live there, sitting on those library benches, not even vocally begging – of those communities which made up the original Silicon Valley.

    One of these daze, I will do that.

  9. diane

    sigh, I forget how congested, and therefore difficult to read, the comments are. just adding some digestion space to my above comment for those (most?) whose eyesight falters
    when there is no more room for digestion.

  10. diane

    (Not to let the MA MIT and PA CMU, et al, birthplace’s Public Libraries™ off that fricken hook.)

  11. michael webster

    Nicholas writes: ” There is a fixed amount of intelligence in the world, and every time we think we’re creating new intelligence, what we’re actually doing is just redistributing the intelligence that’s already there.”

    Yes, your example makes more sense, I think, if you substitute either attention or focus for intelligence.

    But, the bigger point is that by we are doing a lot more with the same amount of intelligence, attention or focus when it is distributed differently.

    (Personally, I switched from propane to natural gas because I had no good refill solution -dumb or smart.)

Comments are closed.