Recently, debate broke out over whether or not “Eugene Goostman,” a computer program scripted to simulate a 13-year-old Ukranian boy, actually passed the famed Turing test after convincing 33 percent of testers that it was human after five minutes of chat. Tech types railed against the hype, including media references to a “supercomputer” for what was essentially a chatbot script. Ultimately, this was less the next phase of artificial intelligence than an instance of skillfully dread-infused clickbait.
Our apprehensions over sentient technology have come a long way since the Terminator promised he would never ever ever stop trying to kill us, but as our phones get smarter and as more of the content of our lived experience lives offsite in the cloud, it’s easy to understand why humanity finishing as salutatorian in the class of intelligent beings might make us a touch insecure.
And apart from the incremental figurative extra nickel of mental allowance granted by the “Flynn effect” (through which our average general intelligence is said to naturally accrue by 3 IQ points per decade, and nearly 10 points per generation), the evidence against our brains’ hopes for a bright future truly is deep for the wallowing.
There was that 2012 study based on simple reaction times that clocked us at just over 13 IQ points down from our showoff Victorian forebears (who were probably just super on edge most of the time). Another 2012 study cited civilization, and the relative ease of survival it affords us in comparison to the wilderness, to claim that evolution could be slacking on the task of weeding out idiots. There was a study in 2013 that awarded Americans in particular with a triple crown of dunce caps in math, reading, and problem solving. And, to garnish, a 2014 study that showed 55 percent of Americans think they’re smarter than their fellow Americans. Skipping reading studies helps.
It feels temptingly germane to toss in here that “Sharknado 2” enjoyed a couple of days of dominating last week’s public cultural conversation.
But more interesting than those safe spaces where we relent and indulge our inner idiot are those increasingly apparent sites of resistance. After years of only being presented in the context of zombie food, brains are being freshly fetishized. Human intelligence is hot.
Or it’s trying to be, at least. See the foxy Sherlock Holmeses of Benedict Cumberbatch in PBS’s “Sherlock” and Jonny Lee Miller in CBS’s “Elementary.”
A new CBS thriller called “Scorpion” is based on the life of computer supergenius Walter O’Brien — and I will presume “loosely based,” since the pilot presents a kind of hybrid of “Speed” and the last IT help-desk ticket you submitted.
Walter, with his 197 IQ and scruffy gang of cast-out geniuses (combined IQ: 700) are so smart they can’t even remember to do normal-person stuff like pay the water bill for their sexy, secret warehouse lair. It’s sexy and secret and smart. At all times, you are kept aware that it was their brains that brought them here — to the edge. And now the feds need their help, because all-too-fallible software has failed once again, and the government is ill-equipped to face pressing problems with real solutions. Like using a Ferrari 458 and a USB connection to stop a plane from crashing. Brains rule!
But even as computers predictably ruin everything until real living geniuses dominate them to solve everything (as well as facilitate awesome car chases by rigging traffic lights), “Scorpion” still treats the brain like the delicate mass of unknowable flesh that it is. The more agency one has over its luminous weirdness, the more renegade one is. “We’re a million miles from normal,” Walter sighs with loaded resignation. You can practically hear his hard drive revving like a motorcycle in the background.
Another defensive pose of aspirational hypercognition can be spotted in Luc Besson’s new film “Lucy,” which finds Scarlett Johansson’s character incrementally unlocking whole zones of her brain previously untapped by humanity by way of ingesting a whole lot of a bright blue fake drug called CPH.
(Note: If you’re thinking this is just like the 2011 film “Limitless,” in which the drug was a nootropic treat called NZT-48, it’s probably because we are collectively growing less adept with processing nuance — or because, yeah, it’s pretty much the same.)
Lucy’s trip into her cerebral sky with diamonds unleashes all kinds of abilities designed to make the rest of us feel like closer kin to our river-sifting hominid ancestors, more specifically, the one whom scientists first discovered and named (wait for it) Lucy (and: groan). Lucy’s unparalleled control over her brainmeats affords her all manner of telepathic, telekinetic, and shape-shifting powers, as well as a user-friendly relationship with space and time.
As a shiny loud thing upon which to look, “Lucy” is entertaining enough, but its central go-get-’em-tiger conceit — that the latent power of our brains is greater than any processor, that consciousness is the ultimate computation — might be a point more clearly made without so much dependence on CGI.
(It’s also a bit trite by this point, considering that consciousness was fully uploadable in “Transcendence,” and desperately seeking an upgraded carrier in “Her.”)
Of course, the idea that you use 10 percent of your brain is silly to begin with; it’s like claiming to only use 10 percent of your blood, or 10 percent of your face. But the useful part of the 10 percent myth is the specter of squandered potential. It’s an anxiety soothed by apps like Lumosity and Elevate, which take a personal training/gaming approach to targeting users’ self-identified cognitive deficiencies. (No users have reported levitation abilities yet. According to “Lucy,” that’s what happens when you unlock 20 percent of your brain, so keep it up.) The National Geographic Channel show “Brain Games” covers similar ground, but with a cushier science-museum feel.
Anxiety and delusional ideas of what our brains can do won’t get us far, though. With any luck, once our computerized creations do become more conscious of their existence than we are of ours, they’ll at least be smart (and considerate) enough to barely let us notice as humanity transitions into our next epoch as adorable house pets. In the meantime, “Dumb and Dumber To” hits theaters Nov. 12.Michael Andor Brodeur can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MBrodeur.