I read an essay on the subject of intelligence written by Isaac Asimov a long time ago. Vague memories of it came back to me recently upon watching an episode of BBC’s drama series Sherlock.
Asimov was widely understood to be an intelligent person. He himself never pretended to be humble and modest about it. When asked how he defined the quality of intelligence, Asimov boiled it down to two essential components. One was the ability to assimilate vast quantities of information, and the second was the ability to recall any bit of this body of information with sufficient speed.
The character of Sherlock Holmes, as depicted in the BBC drama series, fits both the aforementioned criteria. His ‘mind palace’ is the virtual repository of every piece of information he has ever seen fit to remember and he can pull relevant facts and figures from it at will. But what seems equally obvious to me is that he wouldn’t be as intelligent as he is without a third quality — imagination.
Sherlock works by building multiple likely narratives in his head. He draws from his vast mind palace, yes, and he does it in record time as well, but his distinctive strength is his ability to form stories inside his head. Regardless of how much stock Arthur Conan Doyle put in the value of “cold logic”, Sherlock Holmes’s ultimate strength is his imagination.
Why is this important? I am not sure. I guess I got tired of seeing intelligence compartmentalised in the same basket as data gathering and computer-like recall. I am as great an Asimov / Doyle fan as the next person, but I would like to see my detectives compassionate and imaginative. Part of me understands the charm of having a machine as an ideal. It keeps things uncomplicated. I am a big fan of breaking processes down into recipes, but I should also be practical enough to realise that processes are often more complicated than they seem.