A friend posed an interesting question recently. Will the increasing dependence of humans in the future on artificial intelligence result in less intelligent people? It’s not easy to figure out what shape technology might take fifty years hence, and what its impact on people might be. However it’s easier to project the nature of people into the future. Technology has been changing extremely rapidly, but evolutionary changes take a very long time to materialise. So if one seeks to explore the nature of human lives into the future, they need to simply look to the past.
Five hundred years ago, very few people had access to reading and writing and more importantly, ready access to the accumulated knowledge of hundreds of years. Having said that, people by and large were still leading purposeful lives. Most of them were engaged in manual labour, in disciplines like farming, or were practising trades like pottery, blacksmithery, animal husbandry etc. They passed on unique bodies of knowledge around their craft from generation to generation and new entrants learnt the trade by apprenticeship. People did not have a lot of general knowledge; however they were quite competent at what they were doing and pursued arts like dancing and singing in their own limited way during leisure.
Dial back to fifty years ago. Education levels are generally more improved. People had access to newspapers and television. Email wasn’t invented yet. Digital calculators weren’t in existence. People wrote each other nice long letters. Since communication was happening in spurts, people were actually thoughtful about it. They needed to arrange a long sequence of events in their head to make a logical narrative. Since they couldn’t correct themselves in real time, using the right choice of words was crucial. A nice turn of phrase was important to them – One of the little arts they get to practice in their daily life. Students weren’t using calculators. They were doing it with pen on paper or used shortcuts like log tables. The ability to remember and recall from memory was important to some of the rituals of everyday living.
Cut to circa 2017. Never before in human history has access to information become more democratised. All one needs to do in order to know about anything is be motivated enough to visit Google. If information equates intelligent, then we’re certainly among the smartest periods in our history as a species. We communicate differently now. Through Whatsapp, Twitter and Facebook. Our communication is immediate and feedback driven. Anything longer than a paragraph is difficult for the millennial generation to write or read. Emojis are cute now, and not a clever turn of phrase. People almost forgot how to calculate in their head, as everyone uses a digital calculator. I get notifications at all times of the day telling me what I should do to maintain my health, manage my finances and have fun. If the ability to hold a complex notion and process it is a factor of intelligence, doesn’t appear that we’re doing so well on this, as a whole.
I think the question of whether human beings will get smarter or stupider in time to come is moot. Our greatest gift as a species is our ability to adapt and to survive. Intelligence in itself is highly subjective. A farmer 500 years ago had enough intuition to predict whether its going to rain today by gazing into the skies and observing the movement of worms. He had enough resourcefulness to make wooden toys to please his child. That’s not the intelligence that an average metropolitan Joe has today.
My view is that we’re barking up the wrong tree. What’s more worrisome, is that today we’re the most distracted race in the history of the living organisms. Hardly a moment passes by where one is not assorted by messages on whatsapp, twitter and facebook or content from TV, Netflix or Youtube. Being able to have quiet periods where one can discover and pursue one’s own interests is central to individual happiness and our progress as a race. That’s how Newton discovered the gravitational theory and Van Gogh painted the Sunflowers.
The day purposeful leisure is lost upon the human race will truly be the day the machines take over, and what scares me is that day is already upon us.
The author is CEO of [x]cubeLABS.