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The coming leap in human intelligence

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Human-like robots are popping up everywhere. From the factory floor to product packaging and delivery. From restaurants to the battlefield. From patient care to camel racing. And countless other places. The driverless cars we talked about in this column only a few years ago can be seen on the road today. Our electronic devices are not only talking to us, they’re beginning to understand what we need without even having to ask.

All of this has led to rampant speculation about when the so-called “singularity” is going to happen. When machines become “smarter” than humans. Sorry to disappoint, but the ultimate brain isn’t a future generation of IBM’s Watson or some super-distributed artificial intelligence network like the fictional Skynet portrayed in the Terminator movies.

The next leap in intelligence may actually be viewed as a step backward. That’s because it’s been around for as long as humans have inhabited the earth. Maybe even longer. It’s a network more massive than Skynet, with trillions of nodes and innumerable connections. And it’s not something “out there.” This recently discovered superbrain exists inside each and every one of us. Introducing … the human microbiome.

Three brains and counting …

We’ve long known about the brain that’s inside the cranium, which is now being called the “first brain.” But only in the past 20 years or so have we seen a revival of interest in the so-called “second brain.” Discovered more than a century ago, it’s made up of approximately the same number of neurons as the cranial brain. Only it’s located in the digestive tract. It’s where that “gut” instinct everyone talks about actually comes from.

This isn’t some new age idea or natural health fad. Hundreds of peer-reviewed papers have been published. One example, found in the July 13, 2011, edition of Nature Reviews Neuroscience, is entitled “Gut feelings: the emerging biology of gut-brain communication,” by Emeran A. Mayer, M.D., (see nature.com/nrn/journal/v12/n8/full/nrn3071.html).

By observing the crosstalk between the first and second brains, Mayer and other researchers have uncovered a complex, bidirectional communication system that’s “likely to have multiple effects on affect, motivation and higher cognitive functions, including intuitive decision making.” As KM’ers, new ways to enhance those functions should be at the top of our radar screens.

It doesn’t stop there. Based on research at the U.S. National Institutes of Health (nih.gov), the presence of a third brain, the human microbiome, has been discovered recently. The third brain, which at four pounds displaces the liver as the heaviest organ in the human body, has the potential to radically transform everything.

An ecosystem within an ecosystem, the human microbiome is a complex matrix of microbes including bacteria, yeast, fungi, viruses and even parasites. It has its own DNA library consisting of approximately 8 million genes. It produces 32 known neurotransmitters, including 50 percent of the dopamine and 90 percent of the serotonin present in the body.

The human microbiome is as close to an operating system as anything else in the body. It regulates the processing of nutrients, guards against toxins, supports memory storage and retrieval, regulates backup power (in the form of fat), helps make sense of sensory inputs and much more.

The importance of that discovery has been getting increased attention from the National Institutes of Health all the way to the White House, with more than $170 million invested in research to date. You can get a glimpse into this exciting and rapidly expanding world at commonfund.nih.gov/hmp.

What it all means

Those discoveries have the potential for creating major disruption in several areas. One is in the rapidly changing field of nutrition. Nutrition is a foundational building block of human intelligence. This is partially borne out in studies that show abnormally low IQ levels for people in poor countries.

More recent studies have shown that malnutrition is pervasive in developed countries as well, but for different reasons. It results primarily from the inability of the body to properly absorb the nutrients it takes in. All three of our brains need proper nutrition. But the long-term neglect and degradation of our third brain makes it harder to absorb proteins and other nutrients, adversely impacting both health and intelligence.

Mental health is another area. Microbiome-related research has shifted the approach to the diagnosis and treatment of mental disorders from cranial-based neurology to whole body neurology. Breakthroughs are occurring regularly and will likely accelerate. In fact, it was research into autism by Italian molecular biologist Marco Ruggiero, M.D., Ph.D., that led to many of the discoveries regarding the existence and functioning of the third brain.

The economic potential is huge. How much longer can the consumer economy continue to grow? There are only so many gadgets to play with, videos to watch, fantasy leagues and online gaming communities to join.

The next wave will very likely move us away from the virtual and back to the real. That means expanding our awareness. Extending longevity and quality of life. Neutralizing the toxicity and pollution that have accumulated both in our bodies and our environment. And other breakthroughs we haven’t even begun to imagine.

A pivotal opportunity for KM

Our message hasn’t changed: Let computers do what computers do well, and let humans do what humans do well. For too long we’ve focused on the advancement of technology while shortchanging human growth and evolution. In our search for artificial intelligence, we’ve overlooked the most powerful source of intelligence of all: the human physiology.

With 8 million genes to work with, the growth in knowledge about the third brain should provide us KM’ers and the knowledge enterprises we lead with plenty of rewarding work for decades to come. One area is in collecting, organizing and helping researchers and practitioners make sense of the many exabytes of data being generated by this and other related programs.

While the upsurge in the volume of data about the human genome and microbiome has mirrored the Moore’s Law-driven growth in technology, the application of that data in advancing human evolution has been painfully slow. By gaining progressively deeper insights into the third brain and its myriad channels of communication with the first and second brain and other organs, we can create a much more complete and actionable body of knowledge about metabolism, cognition and the entire physiology.

Through the co-evolution of people and technology, the human microbiome provides an unprecedented opportunity to take the enterprise of the future and its workforce to the next level. Looking for sound, intuitive judgment and better decision-making? It’s there. Work-life balance? Personal growth and fulfillment? Accelerating evolutionary progress by adding to our already vast body of knowledge? Totally within reach.

Imagine the capacity for reasoning and understanding of 7 billion minds growing at the same rate as Moore’s Law. Let’s hop on board and help lead the way toward the next stage in human development.

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