Internet as Brain-Booster?
As a follow-up to yesterday's news about stimulating our brainpower, I report today on Walter Isaacson's review ("Brain Gain," The New York Times, November 1, 2013) of Smarter Than You Think, Clive Thompson's book on how technology is making us smarter. We humans might have felt collectively dumber back in May 1997, when the chess-playing computer Deep Blue apparently defeated Garry Kasparov, arguably the greatest grandmaster ever, but most of us missed what happened next:
The year after his defeat by Deep Blue, Kasparov set out to see what would happen if he paired a machine and a human chess player in a collaboration. Like a centaur, the hybrid would have the strength of each of its components: the processing power of a large logic circuit and the intuition of a human brain's wetware. The result: human-machine teams, even when they didn't include the best grandmasters or most powerful computers, consistently beat teams composed solely of human grandmasters or superfast machines.Interesting . . . but what of it?
Thompson's point is that "artificial intelligence" -- defined as machines that can think on their own just like or better than humans -- is not yet (and may never be) as powerful as "intelligence amplification," the symbiotic smarts that occur when human cognition is augmented by a close interaction with computers. When he played in collaboration with a computer, Kasparov said, it freed him to focus on the "creative texture" of the game. In the future, Thompson writes, we should not fear being beaten in chess by Deep Blue or in "Jeopardy!" by Watson. Instead, humans will find themselves working in partnership with the progeny of these supercomputers to diagnose diseases, solve crimes, write poetry and become (as the clever double meaning of the book's title puts it) smarter than we think.Better poetry through cooperating with a computer? As if that weren't scary! But against pessimists who would worry that such interaction is making us dumber, Isaacson lets Thompson speak for himself:
Thompson counters that . . . [pessimists have ever failed] to foresee "the types of complex thought that would be possible once you no longer needed to mentally store everything you'd encountered," [such as also happened with the mental relief provided several thousand years ago through the invention of writing, deplored by the pessimists of those days,] and he surmises that the same will turn out to be true of our ability to digitally store and easily access huge amounts of information and memories outside of our own brains. "What's the line between our own, in-brain knowledge and the sea of information around us?" he asks. "Does it make us smarter when we can dip in so instantly? Or dumber with every search?"Isaacson agrees, and again quotes Thompson:
His answer is that our creative minds are being strengthened rather than atrophied by the ability to interact easily with the Web and Wikipedia. "Not only has transactive memory not hurt us," he writes, "it's allowed us to perform at higher levels, accomplishing acts of reasoning that are impossible for us alone."
"Before the Internet came along, most people rarely wrote anything at all for pleasure or intellectual satisfaction after graduating from high school or college . . . . This is something that's particularly hard to grasp for professionals whose jobs require incessant writing, like academics, journalists, lawyers or marketers. For them, the act of writing and hashing out your ideas seems commonplace. But until the late 1990s, this simply wasn't true of the average nonliterary person."True, everybody's writing more nowadays, but I suspect that this phenomenon is a transitional stage between no internet and software that can understand spoken language perfectly, when the vast majority can stop text-messaging and return to chatting out loud.
But Thompson is right about the Internet as "transactive memory" -- it has enabled me to perform at a higher level, assisting me greatly when I was writing my novella, The Bottomless Bottle of Beer, which I basically hammered out in a couple of weeks, sped up by instant access to literature online for checking the accuracy of my literary allusions.