Cryptography

The History and Mathematics of Codes and Code Breaking

It's What We Make of It

For this blog post I would like to introduce a rather grim prospect that I’ve been pondering about the human knowledge threshold. I was reminded of the thought after reading Marcus’ discussion on how we can wield computers and other tools of such sophistication and power with just a few “lines of code” (Doctorow 119).

The idea starts out with the outlook that humankind will continue to accumulate more and more knowledge as long as we exist, be it from discoveries in the natural world or learning it from the complex information systems that others create (ex: designing and keeping up with the expansion of the internet).

Particularly in the scientific fields, as we continue to acquire more information, we will eventually reach a point of information overload. What I mean by that is, maybe in a few centuries from now, even if someone were to start learning and specializing in one specific field from the youngest age possible, it would take them more than a lifetime to learn the information already known in that subject.

Needless to say, further expansion of knowledge within that field may be impossible to achieve by studying, which grants the scholar the awful prospect that all work that is physically possible to do in a lifetime has already been done, and a sense of futility in pursuing further scholarship in that field for greater knowledge. However, one can argue that the introduction of computers that can process all the information and sustain a method of inquiry may be able to replace us and surpass the knowledge threshold we may have.

After all, the components of such “complicated machines” have been “microminiaturized” so that “billions” of parts can now fit within the “machines,” making them more efficient overall (Doctorow 119). So who’s to say we can’t further miniaturize and compact existing computers so that they are more efficient, resulting in the possibility of synthetically attaining knowledge above a human’s threshold?

We can imagine endless possibilities as arguments against this prospect of the human knowledge threshold, and counterarguments against those arguments, but the more we try to solve this information overload, the more complex our understanding of the world becomes, the greater our fall is…when, let’s say, a terrorist group wipes out all electronic data in the world. How do we advance our quest for knowledge then?

Maybe Darwinism will have an answer for our intellectual threshold.

 

An additional note: the above prospect is really more focused on fields that are more scientific in nature, and that demand expansion off already existing knowledge. Thus, we will never see a “knowledge threshold” in the arts, for creativity is boundless.

 

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1 Comment

  1. Derek

    This is indeed a grim prospect! And perhaps it's the end result of increasing specialization. But I wonder if Isaac Newton's idea of "standing on the shoulders of giants" might continue to hold true indefinitely. Must you comprehend an idea or technique in order to do something with that idea or technique? As an educator, I'd like to think so. Learn how to multiple three-digit numbers by hand, so you understand what multiplication does, then use a calculator for that task all you want. But in the name of research? Perhaps treating prior discoveries as "black boxes" isn't the end of the world. Certainly my car is mostly a black box to me, but I drive it reasonably well.

    Good question, Ling!

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