Superhumans Live Among Us

Computers are impressive machines, and they get more impressive every year, as hardware gets cheaper and software gets better. But while they are substantially better than humans on many important tasks, still overall humans earn far more income from using their smarts than do computers. And at past rates of progress it looks like it will take centuries before computers earn more income overall.

The usual explanation for why humans are so much more capable is their flexibility, which probably results mainly from their breadth. A computer doing a task usually has available to it a far smaller range of methods, knowledge, and data. When what it has are good enough, a computer can be far more accurate and cheaper than a human. But when when a computer lacks important relevant method, knowledge, and data, then you just can’t do without that human flexibility and breadth. You might hire a human to work with a computer, but still you need that human on the team.

In our world today, most people are specialists; they spend years learning the methods, knowledge, and data relevant to an existing recognized specialty area. And when your problem falls well within such an existing area, that is exactly the sort of person you want to work on it.

But often we face problems that don’t fall well within existing specialty areas. If we can give a short list of specialty areas that cover our problem, then we can collect a team with members in all those areas. Because talking between people is much less efficient that communication within one person, this team will take a lot longer to solve our problem. But still, eventually such teams are usually up to the task.

However, sometimes we face problems where we don’t know which kinds of expertise are relevant. In such cases what we really need is a person who is expert in far more areas than are most people. Let me call such people “polymaths”, though that word is often used for people who have wide interests but not wide expertise. A polymath with expertise in enough areas has a far better chance of solving broad hard-to-classify problems. A polymath is to an ordinary human as that human is to a computer. At least in terms of relative flexibility and breadth, and thus generality.

Quite often a specialist will see that some of their tools apply to a problem, and not realize that there are tools from other areas that also apply. And if specialists from other areas tell them that other tools do apply, they will usually not have sufficient expertise to directly evaluate that claim. And so the usual human arrogance will often lead them to disagree. Specialists from each area will say that they can help, and discount the possibility of help from other kinds of specialists.

Now a clear long track record showing that teams that include several kinds of specialists tend to solve a certain kind of problem better may convince many specialists that other specialists are relevant. But we often lack such clear long track records. In such cases, we often get stuck in a pattern of having a particular kind of expert deal with a particular kind of problem, even when other kinds of experts could help.

The same thing applies when humans know more than computers. Usually there’s nothing the human could say to prove to the computer that it is missing important relevant tools and knowledge. The computer just doesn’t understand these other tools well enough. So the computer has to just be told to defer to the human when the human thinks it knows better.

Bottom line: superhuman really live among us, whose better abilities compared to us really are analogous to the way we are so much better than computers: they have more flexibility, due to more breadth of expertise. But without clear track records, they usually don’t have ways to convince us to listen to them. Once we’ve found one kind of expert relevant to a problem, those experts tend to tell us that other kinds aren’t needed, and we tend to believe them.

Superhumans walk among us, but don’t get the respect they deserve. We reserve our highest honors for those who are best at specific recognized specialty areas, and mainly only recognize polymaths when they are good enough at one such area.

Added 22Apr: Actually, someone with multiple expertise areas isn’t what I meant if they haven’t worked to integrate them. Compared to computers, the human mind can not only do many things, it has integrated those tools together well. When areas overall, one needs a common representation to accommodate them both. Is one a special case of the other? Do they focus on different parameters in a common parameter space? I mean to refer to a polymath who has successfully integrated their many areas of expertise.

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