Time Will Tell


September 2013
Ivan Obolensky

We live in a world that is far more networked and connected than ever before. As we confront and deal with this complexity, are we becoming more intelligent?

Insects, plants, fish, and a myriad of other creatures from lobsters to tree frogs have inhabited Earth for millions of years. Have they gotten smarter with their longevity? Will they become as smart as we are?

It does not appear to be the case.

Perhaps they are evolving biologically but not mentally. If they have a ceiling as to what and how much they can learn, what makes humans any more special? Are we, too, only evolving biologically and not mentally?

John von Neumann, the Hungarian-born mathematician and father of Game Theory spoke of a complexity barrier. There are simple systems and complex systems. Simple systems can only create simpler ones, or systems of less complexity than themselves. Complex systems on the other hand can give rise to more complex systems. Separating a simple system from a complex system is a complexity barrier. Those systems on the barrier can only create systems as complex as themselves, but not more so. They can simply duplicate themselves.1

On a less abstract level, humans beget humans. Are any human offspring fundamentally more complex than any other? Therefore, do we not fit squarely on the complexity barrier between a simple and complex system? This appears to be true not only for us but any other species that procreates.

If we look at what sets us apart from other species, we find we have language, and we have the Internet.

But here is the dilemma:

We can learn about quantum mechanics, general relativity, higher mathematics, the structure of crystals, the absorption of heat by aluminum, the history of guerrilla warfare, feedback loops, computer coding, and the habits of the inhabitants of Tierra del Fuego, just by doing a Google search.

It is the neatest thing, but are we any smarter as a result?

For myself, I may know more, but whether I am more intelligent is an open question.

An ever expanding series of books and studies report that the Internet and digital devices are making it harder to concentrate. A Pew Research Center study shows that 77% of advanced placement teachers at the high school level consider the Internet has had a mostly positive effect on the student’s work in terms of papers submitted, while 87% of these teachers find that students are more easily distracted and have shorter attention spans.2

Another report which studied behavior of people born between 1982 and 2002 in terms of learning and working, found mixed results. The takeaway was that this age group of ten to thirty year-olds spent a great deal more time utilizing remote communication and that when it came to working and interacting directly with others, their concentration was often elsewhere.3

One factor is that we live in a world that is hyper stimulating as to inputs whether from television, radio, Internet, email, texts, tweets, cell phones, or other electronic devices.

Today, younger generations can multitask with amazing skill and keep pace with texts and tweets while simply walking about while older folks mostly can’t or won’t. On the other hand the older generations are often able to concentrate and pay more attention to what they are doing. They also walk into fewer lamp posts and doors. Neither skill is on the whole any better than the other.

Species continue their genetic lines by either duplicating themselves in the case of single cell organisms or by interchanging genetic material if more sophisticated. The result is still the same species. This puzzle leads to the thorniest question of evolutionary biology: How are new species created? Has anyone ever seen one?

Surely we humans are more complex than an amoeba. We did not simply arrive at our level of complexity. We must have evolved and developed from simpler things, and therefore, we must have broken through the complexity barrier. But how did this work exactly? We have no concrete evidence of the creation of new species other than a fossil record that shows it happened.

We hear of new species discovered, or rediscovered, in remote locations as well as species extinctions but no “here is a new species that came from this species and it happened right before our eyes.” (The advent of new drug resistant bacteria might be an instance, but they have not been named as such. They are considered new strains, not new species.)

Part of the answer to the puzzle has to do with time. The movement of the last few millions of years is like a movie only we, as 70-80-year lifetime creatures, are stuck in a single frame. We can’t see the pattern, because we haven’t been around long enough. Our lives are so short, we don’t even know the name of the movie we are in the middle of. We missed that part.

Humanity’s uniqueness is our ability to record our history. We write things down and have for five thousand years.

Today we have digital content. It’s faster and easier to access, but with the speed comes perhaps the greatest hurdle we as a species have to face: will we allow—or can we prevent—what we say today from being changed into something else in the future by groups interested in controlling what our children and our children’s children think?

Why is that important? In the great scheme of things all we have that separates humankind from every other species is our ability to store the knowledge of our history in other than genetic form. No other species can do that.

We may have, in the Internet, also created a system more complex than ourselves. It is so large and complicated that we are now at the mercy of our favorite search engine. He, or she, who controls the search, controls what we think we know. Is it any wonder Google is one of the most powerful companies in the world?

Lack of sufficient time to observe is one part of the answer to the puzzle of how we pierced the complexity barrier. Our individual span of life is too short, but with our continued recording of history in non-genetic terms, it may eventually become obvious.

Another part of the answer might have to do with emergence.

Emergence as a concept is part of system theory. There are two types: strong and weak. Weak emergence is where a property can be broken down to its individual components. Strong emergence is when qualities are not traceable to the components of a system.

An example of weak emergence is breaking down salad dressing into oil, vinegar, and herbs. On a chemical level, one of the most cited examples of strong emergence is table salt (NaCl). It is made up of sodium (a metal that reacts so strongly with water that it must stored in oil to prevent its combustion when introduced to an atmosphere that contains water vapor) and chlorine (a gas that is so corrosive it was used in WWI as a chemical weapon). Yet when these two elements are combined it is easily dissolved in water and consumable. The original qualities are not traceable.

The problem with strong emergence is that it smacks of wizardry. Part of this perception comes from our current view of analysis as being simply the breakdown of something into its respective components (weak emergence). But the simple sum of the ingredients is not always the thing when it is put back together.

Structure is an important component of what something is. The difference between the carbon on a burnt match stick and the carbon of a diamond is structure.

The exact sequence of actions that must take place to create something is also vital. Whether to heat or to cool before adding a component can make a world of difference in the result.4

On a bigger scale emergence has everything to do with how life managed to go from a Big Bang to our current state billions of years later. Perhaps today as our world becomes more networked and more connected, a new emergent structure will develop with the Internet as its framework. Humanity will then be like the billions of germs that inhabit our bodies and carry on their respective lives regardless of what the whole is doing.

If new life forms as a structure on top of such a network, it will likely be far more complex and intelligent than we are. After all, we have our neural connections. The Internet has its connections. What happens when the number of Internet connections outnumbers those available in the human body?

The difference between a single cell organism and a human being is immense. To put the difference in another way, if you had 1,000 times the level of complexity and the intelligence you have now, would you be doing what you are doing? It is likely your current self and your advanced self would hardly be able to bridge the gap. The distance might be so great, we may not even be aware that something totally new and more complex has been created.

Ultimately, given enough of it, time may tell us how greater complexity is achieved. As an added bonus, it may eventually tell us whether life, the movie, has a sequel – so much to look forward to.


  1. Hall, J. S. (2007) Beyond AI, Creating the Conscience of the Machine. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books
  2. Purcell, K., Rainie, L., Heaps, A., Buchanan, J., Freidrich, L., Jacklin, A., Chen, C., and Zickuhr, K. (2012). How Teens Do Research in the Digital World, Pew Research Center. Retrieved September 19, 2013 from http://www.pewinternet.org/Reports/2012/Student-Research.aspx.
  3. Jefferies, D. (2013) Is technology and the internet reducing pupils’ attention spans? The Guardian. Retrieved September 19, 2013 from http://www.theguardian.com/teacher-network/teacher-blog/2013/mar/11/technology-internet-pupil-attention-teaching.
  4. Page, S. E. (2009) Understanding Complexity. The Great Courses. Chantilly, VA: The Teaching Company

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© 2013 Ivan Obolensky. All rights reserved. No part of this publication can be reproduced without the written permission from the author.

  1. craig


    That was a fun article. Good food for thought.


    • Ivan

      Thank you, Craig. Glad you liked it!

  2. Faith Lustig
    Faith Lustig12-04-2013

    This text is without a doubt worth reading through. Although we might have a handful of differences when it concerns our thoughts, i respect what you’re telling in this post. A fantastic read!

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