We have come to believe that intelligence is something intrinsic to us, a thing we possess. But the writer Tressie Cottom has a different view, suggesting that intelligence is not something fixed within ourselves, but rather a relationship between us and the technologies and norms popular at a specific moment in time. A genius in one era is not necessarily a genius in the next because technological advances like reading glasses, the printing press, computers, the internet, and now AI are all reshaping who and what we perceive to be intelligent and valuable.
In this new paradigm of AI, new forms of intelligence will blossom, and some existing perceptions of intelligence will wane. Similar to the way the internet de-emphasized the intelligence connected to memorizing facts, AI will de-emphasize types of intelligence that have flourished in today’s knowledge economy.
Last week I had an HVAC repairman working on my house, and we struck up a conversation while I was working on my computer. He told me that working in the trades was a skill I should consider. After all, he said—pointing at my computer—“If you work in tech, you could be disrupted. The trades will be a skill you can fall back on.”
We have elevated the knowledge economy as something more important, and maybe even more intelligent, than other sectors or industries only because today’s technologies and norms reinforce certain skills over others.
But new AI models will lead to a different knowledge economy that will elevate different forms of intelligence. Electricians, people working in the trades, and other sectors who drive value by applying deep knowledge into specific contexts will thrive. As will those who find ways to partner with AI algorithms, working as a human-computer team to achieve more than humans could do by themselves. Determining the best way to prompt AI chatbots will become increasingly valuable, as will knowing how to identify AI-generated misinformation (which will proliferate).
Perhaps the people who should be most afraid of AI are those who believe that intelligence is intrinsic and fixed. But for those who understand that intelligence is a relationship between us and the world, a new technological era has the chance to elevate different voices, unbundle and rebundle what we consider valuable, and challenge our understanding of what is actually intelligent.