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Smarter Chimps, Smarter Machines, Dumber Humans

Whether its our genes, environment or food today, our intelligence seems to be going down, while we are now discovering that chimps are smarter than we once thought.
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I'm never been particularly good with the memory thing, like many people I know, when I read how chimpanzees even have a much better short-term memory than us. And a few recent scientific findings about brain power and intelligence can make one feel even worse - though maybe there's hope.

The recent findings about chimps' better memory was reported by some Japanese researchers led by Professor Tetsuro Matsuzawa of the Kyoto University's Primate Research Institute. As Matsuzawa described it at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the 14 chimps in their study showed an amazing ability to remember the exact locations of flashing numbers from 1 to 9 in their correct numerical order - something that the average person can't do . The only people with such abilities have the savant syndrome, so they otherwise have severe mental disabilities besides their prodigious memories.

Apparently this precise short-term memory helps chimps survive in the wild where they have to make many quick decisions, such as how to navigate tree branches for food or react when confronted by competing groups of chimps. At least I felt less alone with my own memory struggles after reading about the better memory power of chimps.

But then, I encountered worse news for the future of human intelligence. According to leading geneticist, Dr. Gerald Crabtree at Stanford University, human intelligence is slowly declining. As Crabtree asserts, despite our advances over the last hundreds of years, some experts believe humans are "losing cognitive capabilities and becoming more emotionally unstable." Well, that might help explain the crazy behavior of some famous movie and TV star celebrities! In any case, he suggests that our abilities are declining due to a likely mutation in the thousands of genes that combine to create our cognitive and emotional capabilities. And a key reason these mutations are more likely to survive is because Darwin's survival of the fittest theory is less applicable in today's society, so those with better genes don't necessarily dominate in society as they once did.

Meanwhile, other researchers have attributed our declining intelligence to other factors, including flouride in the drinking water, according to researchers at Harvard, also pesticides, according to researchers at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health, and processed foods and high fructose corn syrup, according to British, American, and Spanish researchers

Thus, whether its our genes, environment or food today, our intelligence seems to be going down, while we are now discovering that chimps are smarter than we once thought. Oh, and robots are getting smarter, too, as the same time that we have smarter phones and smarter TVs. For example, a computer scientist at the University of Sheffield in the U.K. is coordinating a project to simulate the bee's sensory system, and then the simulated bee brain will be used to help a flying robot make decisions on navigating safely, such as on search a rescue missions. Meanwhile, in Japan, Honda has created a human-shaped robot that can run faster, balance on uneven surfaces, distinguish the voices of three people speaking at once by using face recognition and sound analysis, and pour different drinks based on different requests. The robot may help clean-up the nuclear plant that suffered a meltdown in Fukushima by using a mechanical arm to open and close valves at the plant. And some of their robots can even play the violin and greet people like a receptionist.

In other words, as people become less smart, we may have different types of help to fill in for us, such as chimps with better memories and robots that increasingly can do just about everything we can - maybe even take tests for anxious students facing exams. And given the increase in online eduction - for example, I'm completing an MS in Recreation and Tourism where all the tests are composed of mostly multiple choice questions -- it becomes increasingly possible to have a stand-in to take our tests for us. Perhaps these suggestions may be a bit of tongue in cheek now. But who knows? As humans become less intelligent and chimps and robots more so, maybe that could happen. And perhaps our growing reliance on computers and smart devices to do our calculating, computing, filing, and remembering is contributing to this intelligence decline, much as the development of writing and the printing press led to a decline of the oral tradition. That's because at one time, people would remember long stories they could retell, but with writing and printing, people didn't have to remember so much any more - they could read it instead.

But at least, just when we need it, according to a New York Times article by John Markoff, , the Obama administration is supporting a scientific study over the next ten years to examine how the human brain works and build a complete map of its activity. It'll be like the Human Genome Project to map the genome, expect this time it's the brain. Besides using the information to understand and treat diseases involving memory loss and brain malfunctions like Alzheimer's and various mental illnesses, the project may lead to advances in artificial intelligence.

Yes, artificial intelligence. It sounds like exactly what we need now, because if we're getting dumber as a species, we need all the artificial and other kinds of intelligence we can get. Even the mind of a bee may be able to help the devices we use to think better and smarter.


Gini Graham Scott, Ph.D. is the author of over 50 books with major publishers and has published 30 books through her own company Changemakers Publishing and Writing. She writes books and proposals for clients, and has written and produced over 50 short videos through her company Changemakers Productions Her latest books include: The Very Next New Thing: Commentaries on the Latest Developments that Will Be Changing Your Life and Living in Limbo: From the End to New Beginnings