The Definition of Intelligence

When you're evaluating someone to see if they're "smart," what qualities are you looking for? This is an important question to ask, because surviving automation is largely about how figuring out how smart you are and maximizing that as much as you can. But most people don't have a clear idea about what intelligence is and will chalk it up as something that they can intuitively spot in themselves and others.

Let's stop relying on gut feelings. Instead, let's consider how people who work in the field of AI define it. It makes sense to listen to these people because their entire professional purpose is to build computer systems that qualify as "intelligent," so they have to be rigorous.

While there are a variety of ways to say it, the AI field's definition of intelligence can be be summarized as follows: the ability to achieve goals in a wide range of environments. Simple, straightforward, powerful.

We can make it even simpler by putting it into one word: adaptability. An intelligent person can adapt and survive, no matter what gets thrown at them. Above all else, developing your adaptability needs to be your number one focus going into the future.

Bonus: if you want to read an excellent overview of how measuring intelligence by credentials has failed us as a society, I recommend you read Excellent Sheep by William Deresiewicz.

You Can Become Smarter Today

Adaptability is a skill that requires time, effort and attention to develop. But you don't have to wait for specific instructions to get started down the path of maximum adaptability. In fact, I'd like you to complete an exercise today as a way of getting you started.

We're all creatures of habit, but primarily what keeps us from refining our adaptability is our reliance on our habits. We get comfortable making the same choices over and over again, and that saps your ability to see beyond your own little bubble.

Here's the exercise: do something you've never done before. Don't do anything extreme at first (you're more likely to stick with a habit if you wade into it), just think of some small change you can make to your daily routine.

For example, if there's a restaurant you go to frequently, order something you've never had before. Or, if you want to go further, check out a new restaurant that serves a genre of food you've never had before.

Go for a walk in a part of town you've never explored before. Pick up the phone and call someone you haven't spoken to in a while and pick their brain about something they're knowledgable about. Say "yes" to things you would normally say "no" to.

This isn't some self-help exercise designed to make you feel good. It's a "workout" for your adaptability "muscles." Start today with small changes, then make a habit of exposing yourself to new experiences as much as possible.

By doing this, you're building a library of new information that you can use to come up more creative solutions to the problems you'll face going forward. If you do it correctly, there will be plenty of bad decisions mixed in with the good ones. You'll try things you don't like, or have your time wasted in one way or another.

That's fine–consider those decisions the cost of gathering useful data. What matters is that you're refining your understanding of the world and how to move flexibly within it. The more you do that, the more intelligent you become. Remember: the ability to achieve goals in a wide range of environments.

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