How computers are making people stupid

The pursuit of artificial intelligence has been driven by the assumption that if human intelligence can be replicated or advanced upon by machines then this accomplishment will in various ways serve the human good. At the same time, thanks to the technophobia promoted in some dystopian science fiction, there is a popular fear that if machines become smarter than people we will end up becoming their slaves.

It turns out that even if there are some irrational fears wrapped up in technophobia, there are good reasons to regard computing devices as a threat to human intelligence.

It’s not that we are creating machines that harbor evil designs to take over the world, but simply that each time we delegate a function of the brain to an external piece of circuitry, our mental faculties inevitably atrophy.

Use it or lose it applies just as much to the brain as it does to any other part of the body.

Carolyn Gregoire writes: Take a moment to think about the last time you memorized someone’s phone number. Was it way back when, perhaps circa 2001? And when was the last time you were at a dinner party or having a conversation with friends, when you whipped out your smartphone to Google the answer to someone’s question? Probably last week.

Technology changes the way we live our daily lives, the way we learn, and the way we use our faculties of attention — and a growing body of research has suggested that it may have profound effects on our memories (particularly the short-term, or working, memory), altering and in some cases impairing its function.

The implications of a poor working memory on our brain functioning and overall intelligence levels are difficult to over-estimate.

“The depth of our intelligence hinges on our ability to transfer information from working memory, the scratch pad of consciousness, to long-term memory, the mind’s filing system,” Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows: What The Internet Is Doing To Our Brains, wrote in Wired in 2010. “When facts and experiences enter our long-term memory, we are able to weave them into the complex ideas that give richness to our thought.”

While our long-term memory has a nearly unlimited capacity, the short-term memory has more limited storage, and that storage is very fragile. “A break in our attention can sweep its contents from our mind,” Carr explains.

Meanwhile, new research has found that taking photos — an increasingly ubiquitous practice in our smartphone-obsessed culture — actually hinders our ability to remember that which we’re capturing on camera.

Concerned about premature memory loss? You probably should be. Here are five things you should know about the way technology is affecting your memory.

1. Information overload makes it harder to retain information.

Even a single session of Internet usage can make it more difficult to file away information in your memory, says Erik Fransén, computer science professor at Sweden’s KTH Royal Institute of Technology. And according to Tony Schwartz, productivity expert and author of The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working, most of us aren’t able to effectively manage the overload of information we’re constantly bombarded with. [Continue reading…]

As I pointed out in a recent post, the externalization of intelligence long preceded the creation of smart phones and personal computers. Indeed, it goes all the way back to the beginning of civilization when we first learned how to transform language into a material form as the written word, thereby creating a substitute for memory.

Plato foresaw the consequences of writing.

In Phaedrus, he describes an exchange between the god Thamus, king and ruler of all Egypt, and the god Theuth, who has invented writing. Theuth, who is very proud of what he has created says: “This invention, O king, will make the Egyptians wiser and will improve their memories; for it is an elixir of memory and wisdom that I have discovered.” But Thamus points out that while one man has the ability to invent, the ability to judge an invention’s usefulness or harmfulness belongs to another.

If men learn this, it will implant forgetfulness in their souls; they will cease to exercise memory because they rely on that which is written, calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves, but by means of external marks. What you have discovered is a recipe not for memory, but for reminder. And it is no true wisdom that you offer your disciples, but only its semblance, for by telling them of many things without teaching them you will make them seem to know much, while for the most part they know nothing, and as men filled, not with wisdom, but with the conceit of wisdom, they will be a burden to their fellows.

Bedazzled by our ingenuity and its creations, we are fast forgetting the value of this quality that can never be implanted in a machine (or a text): wisdom.

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