Education Science

Poverty, Education and Aliens: brain power is an expensive luxury, and maybe rare.

As long as I’ve been alive, I’ve always believed that intelligent life exists in more than one place in the universe. We are of course not alone. Whether that was a child’s fervent wish or the reasoned response of an adult faced with a near-infinite universe, the idea of intelligence as a natural consequence of life has always made sense to me.

Indeed, because we know life is essentially a higher expression of chemistry – that, given the right circumstances, the right set of chemicals will create DNA-based, self-replicating structures – it is almost insane to think life can’t exist elsewhere. Our galaxy alone contains an estimated 100 billion stars and is one of 100 billion estimated galaxies in the universe. The math almost guarantees that life exists elsewhere.

Scientifically, there are some logical problems with these beliefs. For a start, even if we earnestly believe that life must exist elsewhere, we see no evidence of it. Surely if life is a consequence of chemistry, and intelligence is a consequence of life, there must be some space-faring species that could have made contact by now? This is what is sometimes referred to as the Fermi Paradox: the apparent discrepancy between the high probability of life and the utter lack of its evidence.

Still, life very clearly exists on Earth and does so in abundance and variety. Once life gets a foothold, it seems clear, it can adapt and thrive. But is intelligence a natural consequence of life?

Here again, despite the multiplicity of life on Earth, we see evidence of only one form of higher intelligence. Why do we not see multiple, coexisting forms of intelligent life? Or else evidence that our one form of intelligent life out-competed another? Perhaps then, intelligence just one possible outcome of the evolutionary process. Like the swollen abdomens of honey pot ants, human intelligence may merely be a unique adaptation, instead of an inevitable next step.

Even if we can say that intelligent life is demonstrably possible, it’s also possible that the inefficiencies of the human brain are prohibitive to reproduce. As adaptations go, intelligence is a resource hog. Despite comprising only 2 percent of the body’s total weight, the brain demands about 20 percent of the body’s resting metabolic function. That means that if you burn 1,300 calories on a lazy Sunday, your brain sucked up 260 of those calories. (math helpfully provided by Scientific American)

So, brain power requires tremendous resources to maintain. Perhaps too much for intelligence to be common in the universe and even here on Earth, enough that training young brains cannot be separated from feeding young brains. Now that we find that 51% of American school children live in poverty, it should not surprise any of us that school performance in low-income neighborhoods is declining. Children who are either not eating or eating junk food with inadequate nutrition are being deprived of the precious resources that keep the gas-guzzling engine of learning running.

To the extent that our nation is interested in improving education, it’s worth keeping in mind that intelligence exists on a knife’s edge of impossibility because we have the wealth to feed it. If kids are going hungry, they’re going to fall behind. Simply raising testing standards only compounds the problem for students who cannot bring the brain power to bear that their richer neighbors can. Beating up on teachers may have some electoral appeal in certain quarters, but it won’t change the statistic staring us in the face: our kids’ brains are getting starved.

Watson, the IBM artificial intelligence supercomputer that defeated Jeopardy’s smartest contestants, ran on 90 IBM servers each requiring a megawatt of power. One Stanford scientist predicted that replicating a fully-functioning brain would take all the energy produced by a small hydroelectric plant. Intelligence is not efficient. Are we prepared to provide the fuel we need to actually improve on our educational system?


Afghan Minerals and the House of Saud Effect

The big story coming out of this weekend has been the discovery – or rather, the announcement of the discovery – of a trillion-dollar mineral resource in Afghanistan. The Obama Administration is trying to paint this as a potential game-changer and a way out of the mess. Many others are painting this as an excuse to prolong our stay – especially since one of the major mineral deposits is lithium, a critical resource in the development of energy-efficient rechargeable batteries in a post-fossil world. So, is the Obama Administration looking for a reason to stay or a reason to leave? And does it matter one way or the other for the people of Afghanistan?

Because to me, the problem I see brewing with the new mineral deposit cache is one which the Saudi Arabian people have been dealing with for nearly a century, which is that having resources in the country does not do the people any good unless the people can actually work in the jobs that those resources produce. Even in the most coopted countries, common people often do the manual labor that comes with international economic success, but this is not the case in Saudi Arabia. In that country, the Wahabi imams run the schools, which teach a strictly Koran-based syllabus. Such an education does not really help secure a job as an engineer or even as a forklift operator, since math, science or writing are not on the agenda.

The result is an angry population from which many Taliban and al-Qeada recruits are plumbed. Even without the international terrorist scene, riots and hunger are common place problems for the House of Saud. To compensate, the government creates “make busy” projects building monuments and water fountains which do nothing to enrich the people, let alone lifting them from their primary intellectual poverty.

In Afghanistan, literacy rates are around 34% for men and 10% for women. This does not bode well for the economic boon that the mineral deposits supposedly represent. Even if the Afghan government weren’t corrupt, the chances are slim that any real work can be found for the majority of Afghans. So, do we make a commitment to stay and educate a generation of Afghans? Or do we leave them to the fate the Saudi people face? Do we, in finding the exit strategy both the American and Afghan people want, end up leaving behind an even more economically-striated place than we went into?


No Tax Forms for 2009?

Well, looks like New York State has decided to make the Internet it’s new cost-cutting strategy, because Channel 8 is reporting today that the state will no longer be sending out tax forms and instructions unless requested. That means they’re encouraging more people to use the Internet to fill out their taxes. I wonder when the Fed goes the same route.

Of course, all of this ignores the large number of people in this country for whom access to such technology is not taken for granted. Many rural poor do not have their own PCs and do not have access to a PC anywhere nearby. This once again raises the question about getting coverage of high-speed cable and other Internet solutions into these rural areas. We have probably left the era where computers are luxury items behind a few years ago. Internet access is now as much of a question of infrastructure and utility as the phone company and RG&E.

I really hope that stimulus package contains some money for network infrastructure.