From Chapter 15 of Future Rising: A Journey from the Past to the Edge of Tomorrow
Imagine the scenario: A salesperson cold-calls you and persuades you to listen to their pitch. They present you with three visions of the future, and tell you that, for a small donation, you can be a part of building the one that most appeals to you.
The first future is one where everyone lives in harmony with nature, where there’s no pollution, no sickness, and no unhappiness. The second is a future where the streets are quite literally paved with gold, and everyone’s a millionaire. And in the third, all political differences have been put aside for the greater good, and everyone’s pulling together to make the world a better place. All you have to do is pick the future of your dreams and commit $10 per month for the rest of your life, and watch your investment grow. The futures are beautiful, the price is right, so why would you not sign the contract?
I’d like to believe that most people would see through such a scam because they’re smart enough to understand the impossibility of what’s being offered, as well as the underlying intent of the salesperson to deceive them. But obvious as it seems, such insight is only possible because of our intelligence.
Intelligence is possibly one of the most important attributes evolution has imbued us with. It’s what enables us to
come up with creative schemes to build the future we desire, just as it helps us avoid scams designed to rob us of our future. Intelligence is what allows us to solidify in our mind a vision of the future as something that can be crafted, designed, engineered, and valued. And it’s what helps us ensure that intentionality and learning carry us in the direction we want, without leading to too many unexpected surprises.
Yet, essential as our intelligence is to imagining and building the future, it’s surprisingly hard to pin down precisely what we mean by it.
On one hand, it’s easy to think of intelligence as a combination of memory, learning, and application that, together, enable us to solve problems. It’s this type of intelligence that lies behind many of the inventions we rely on. An inventor, for instance, may remember that round objects roll, and learns that placing something on top of a round object helps move it from point A to point B. Before you know it, you have bicycles, trains, cars, and an epidemic of e-scooters.
This practical, problem-solving form of intelligence underpins much of modern science and engineering. And as something that helps us design and build new futures, it’s a powerful one. But there are many other types of intelligence that are relevant to future-building. These include intelligence that leads to the creation of music and other art forms which reveal insights and possibilities that would otherwise remain hidden. Or intelligence that enables us to understand and respond to each other emotionally and socially.
Because what we think of as intelligence is so multifaceted and elusive, how we define it is still surprisingly contentious. This tension arises in part because our notions of intelligence are deeply tied to our personal visions of the future and how to get there. So, if you value a technology- enabled future, your idea of intelligence will more likely be one that’s grounded in logic, rationality, and science. Or, if you are fixated on a future dominated by economic growth, you’ll likely value concepts of intelligence that are rooted in translating knowledge into power and profit.
On the other hand, if you value a future that’s environmentally sustainable, or one where health and happiness are more important than power and profit, you’re more likely to think of intelligence as a complex mix of empathetic, artistic, and inspirational traits that help transform your aspirations into reality.
Despite these differences, intelligence emerges as that special something, the “secret sauce” if you like, that gives us the tools and ability to transform what we can imagine into the future we hope for. It’s an engine of change that helps us craft and create the future. But like all engines, it needs fuel. And a vital ingredient in that fuel is the knowledge that comes from learning.