The Limits of Intelligence

By Douglas Fox, Scientific American

An excerpt: ... One might think, for example, that evolutionary processes could increase the number of neurons in our brain or boost the rate at which those neurons exchange information and that such changes would make us smarter. But several recent trends of investigation, if taken together and followed to their logical conclusion, seem to suggest that such tweaks would soon run into physical limits. Ultimately those limits trace back to the very nature of neurons and the statistically noisy chemical exchanges by which they communicate. “Information, noise and energy are inextricably linked,” says Simon Laughlin, a theoretical neuroscientist at the University of Cambridge. “That connection exists at the thermodynamic level.”

Do the laws of thermodynamics, then, impose a limit on neuron-based intelligence, one that applies universally, whether in birds, primates, porpoises or praying mantises? This question apparently has never been asked in such broad terms, but the scientists interviewed for this article generally agree that it is a question worth contemplating. “It's a very interesting point,” says Vijay Balasubramanian, a physicist who studies neural coding of information at the University of Pennsylvania. “I've never even seen this point discussed in science fiction.”

Intelligence is of course a loaded word: it is hard to measure and even to define. Still, it seems fair to say that by most metrics, humans are the most intelligent animals on earth. But as our brain has evolved, has it approached a hard limit to its ability to process information? Could there be some physical limit to the evolution of neuron-based intelligence—and not just for humans but for all of life as we know it? 

Read the article.

Photo courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons.

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