The real meaning of intelligence

Prof Ke Yu ,Associate Professor in the Department of Education Leadership and Management at UJ and Prof Tshilidzi Marwala, Vice Chancellor and Principal of UJ recently penned an opinion article published in the Sunday Independent on 7 April 2019.

Human beings have been obsessed with the concept of intelligence and have developed various instruments to understand and measure it. Intelligence is essentially the use of the brain to understand complex and diverse phenomena.

There are two types of intelligence and these are individual and group intelligence. Individual intelligence is the type that allows a single individual to perform complex diverse tasks. Group intelligence is the type that allows a population of individuals to perform complex diverse joint tasks.

There have been many ways of quantifying intelligence such as intelligent quotient and emotional quotient. Intelligence is a utility that people value and take rather personally. Games such as chess and ‘Go’ remain popular because they are deemed to improve children’s intelligence. We regard it as a personal insult if our children are not considered smart. There is even a whole emergent academic discipline of a growth mind-set that trains students that intelligence is not fixed and does not determine academic performance.

Understandably as people we are proud of our intelligence. Yuval Harari in his book Sapiens states that what has made us the most intelligent species is the discovery of fire. With fire we were able to burn forests and harvest burnt meat. The burnt meat meant that food was now partially digested outside the human body thus leaving us with excess energy that we previously used for digestion and because of these reasons our brains and heads started to grow big. Because of this growth in brain size childbearing became very dangerous and only children who were born prematurely were the only ones that survived. To this day our children cannot fend for themselves for a longer period than other mammals.

Because of this reason we became social animals that could dream plan and organise. This is what has made us the most successful intelligent species on this planet and at the top of the hierarchy. Yet we don’t exactly understand intelligence fully especially its mechanisms, essence, matrices and how to improve it. The brain is the primary driver of intelligence.

Physicist Alex Wissener Gross defined intelligence as a way to maximise future freedom of actions. In general, intelligence summarises aspects associated with humans such as flexibility adaptability critical thinking originality and creativity. Scientists have developed ways of creating an artificial intelligence AI . It is artificial because it is man-made. AI systems such as machine learning are black boxes because we normally give them information and they process the information and give us the output. They are called black boxes because we do not know what is happening inside them. We are living in an era where AI machines play better chess than humans play the Chinese game ‘Go’ better than humans and interpret medical images better than radiologists.

What is to happen to humans? As AI becomes very good in highly specialised areas how shall we compete with our limited brain capacity and limited physical hours? The first thing we will need to take advantage of is our ability to understand concepts and to multi task.

The second advantage we should exploit is our ability to cooperate. The third is our ability to show kindness and empathy. It is clear that the era of domination by specialists who require individual intelligence is coming to an end and it is being replaced by generalists who require group intelligence. This era will require that we deliberately teach at universities across and not in disciplines to develop both group and individual intelligence.

*The views expressed in the article is that of the author/s and does not necessarily reflect that of the University of Johannesburg

prof tshilidzi marwala
Prof Tshilidzi Marwala


Prof Ke Yu
Prof Ke Yu
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