The Memex in Your Pocket
How technology is expanding our minds.
As for the information-retrieval side of the equation, in December Google hired the artificial-intelligence guru (and extreme techno-optimist) Ray Kurzweil to head an engineering team that’s rumored to be working on personal-assistant technologies that would intuit and deliver the information you need before you even have to ask. For instance, if Google Glass noticed that you were approaching your bus stop around your usual commute hour, it could let you know automatically that your bus was running late and that you’d be better off taking the subway.
Whether that’s worth all the trouble is not yet clear. Ritchey, the U.C.–Davis neuroscientist, points out that the human brain is already adept at forming and acting on intentions. Trying to train a computer to guess our thoughts might result in a lot of false alarms and needless alerts.
There are also, of course, pitfalls to having devices that are smart and powerful enough to aid our minds in all sorts of ways.
One is the fear that the same Internet that makes us smarter in relatively superficial ways may also be making us stupid on a deeper level. The writer Nicholas Carr worries that the information age is leading inexorably to an age of ADHD—that a parade of tweets and hyperlinks is training our brains to expect constant stimulation and thus rendering us incapable of reading a book, let alone sustaining the type of profound contemplation that leads to real wisdom.
There may be some truth in that, though brain scans suggest that searching Google actually stimulates more parts of the brain than reading a book. And it’s worth keeping in mind Carr’s own observation that Socrates once bemoaned the rise of the written word on similar grounds. Similarly, 15th-century techno-skeptics fretted that the printing press would weaken people’s minds.
Chalmers points out that this type of reasoning depends on the notion that the human mind is coterminous with the brain. Sure, the rise of literature probably eroded our brains’ capacity to remember epic poems verse by verse. Long before that, Chalmers says, the advent of oral language might well have reshaped our cortexes to the detriment some primitive sensory capacities or modes of introspection. “Maybe the Nicholas Carr of the day said, ‘Hey, language is making us stupider,’ ” Chalmers jokes.
If you view the brain as the control room of the extended mind, it’s clear language has on balance made us much more intelligent. There’s no guarantee that the Internet will do the same, but for an example of how it is already spawning antidotes to the danger Carr articulated, try saving his article to Instapaper so you can peruse it at your leisure.
The second major pitfall may be more pressing. In order for a technology to count as a genuine cognitive enhancement, ready and reliable access (as in mobile Internet service) is one criterion. But another is trust. The more useful services like Google, Facebook, Instagram, and Evernote become, the greater the risks should they ever betray us. Betrayal could come in the form of system failure: Imagine the chaos if everyone grew to rely on Google Glass and self-driving cars only to have them all go dark or malfunction at the same time. Or it could come in the form of privacy invasions, a specter that already looms over some of the Internet companies that know the most about our personal lives. Just last week, hackers stole the email addresses, user names, and encrypted passwords of 50 million Evernote users. Facebook has never suffered a massive breach, but it erodes its users’ privacy by design, often for the benefit of corporate advertisers.
Yet today’s technological mind extensions also hold the promise of freeing our conscious brains to spend more time on higher-order tasks rather than committing facts and experiences to memory. As Albert Einstein once said when he failed to remember the speed of sound, “[I do not] carry such information in my mind since it is readily available in books.” Just as calculators enable math students to focus on theorems and proofs, ubiquitous access to the contents of Wikipedia and the Web at large could allow us to devote more cognitive space to thinking critically and building bridges between ideas. In other words, far better than turning us into Rain Man, the Internet could make us all a little more like Einstein.
Read more from this series: Human enhancement is giving us superpowers once reserved for comic-book heroes.