Cynthia and I were wondering yesterday how we used to survive without the internet. She needed a fuse replaced in her car but when she went to replace it, she noticed that the fuse box was not in it’s normal location. She talked to a number of experienced technicians, and one even examined the vehicle, but none of them could find it. Then, of course, she turned to the internet and to Google, and after typing in “Toyota Fuse Box”, found the answer within minutes.
These days, nearly everyone can relate to this story. In a very real sense, Yahoo Maps or MapQuest corrects my horribly pathetic sense of direction. It compensates where my brain lacks.
What we are seeing could be the first signs of Augmented Cognition, or the use of technology to augment human intelligence.
A short but thought provoking essay on enhancing human intelligence was written by Harvard Psychologist Stephen M. Kosslyn. He outlined 3 ways human intelligence could be increased dramatically in the future. The first is probably obvious to our readers: Brain Exercise. But, the last 2 were more surprising:
Second, people often grapple with problems in groups, be they formally designated teams or casual huddles around the water cooler. I am optimistic that understanding the nature of such group interactions will increase human intelligence. Just as a mechanical calculator can extend our mental capacities, other people help us extend our intelligence—both in a cognitive sense (as required to solve problems) and in an emotional sense (as required to detect and respond appropriately to emotions, ours and those of others). In this sense, other people can serve as “social prosthetic systems,” as extensions of our own brains; a wooden leg can fill in for a missing limb, and others’ brains can fill in for our cognitive and emotional limitations. To the extent that researchers come to understand how such social prosthetic systems arise and operate, they will understand how to increase human intelligence.
Third, the line between animate and inanimate information processing is becoming increasingly blurry as research in multiple fields proceeds apace. I expect that engineers will continue to press forward, designing increasingly powerful machines to help us extend our intelligence. For example, some people carry computers with them everywhere they go, and treat Google as an extension of their own knowledge bases. Or, in my case, my PDA extends my organizational ability enormously. We soon will have a wide variety of mechanical helpmates. The distinction between what goes on in the head and what relies on external devices is becoming more subtle and nuanced, and in so doing human intelligence is being extended.
There is an interesting article from the Neurophilosophy blog on Augmented Cognition, including a video commissioned by the infamous DARPA (which was mentioned in the video post here): http://neurophilosophy.wordpress.com/2007/01/03/augmented-cognition/
Here is an excerpt about a particular device called the “CogPit”:
One device that is currently being developed is the CogPit, a “smart” cockpit for fighter aircraft of the future. The CogPit uses an electro- encephalogram to take readings of the brain’s electrical activity while a pilot uses the conventional controls of the craft. It is a closed-loop simulation; brain activity is monitored, and specific patterns of brain waves – those associated with stress, for example, trigger the system into action.
By filtering out irrelevant information, the CogPit system could reduce the pilot’s stress levels, enabling them to focus their attention on the most important information. It could provide assistance or, if necessary, take complete control of the aircraft if the pilot is under excess stress. Currently, the CogPit system is fully equipped with flight instruments, including a radar warning receiver which detects surface-to-air missiles, and a “targeting pod” which can locate, track and destroy targets.
Although most of the serious research into Augmented Cognition has so far been directed at creating human war machines, we are seeing more and more metropolitan areas installing universal wi-fi access, and immensely powerful computers are becoming smaller and smaller. It is inevitable that this technology will prosper in the private sector.
One worry I have is that too much augmentation could lead to too little cognition! In college I worked in a small local bookstore with an ancient boss who despised technology and would openly brag about having never even turned on a computer in his life. Yet because he grew up without calculators or any form of information technology, he could perform huge mental calculations in his head extremely quickly. When depositing checks at the bank, he would often challenge the clerk to calculate the total faster than he could. With his employees (including me) he insisted that we determine our customer’s totals (including tax!) in our heads without the use of the register. After a few months of this, I noticed that performing these calculations so quickly became second nature. Unfortunately, many years and many handy calculators later, I have almost completely lost that ability. What will happen when universal access to the internet is always available? Will we lose much of our capacity for memory? For attention, or organization?