Thinking in the age of cyborgs

We have our clearest indication yet that the cyborgs are coming. Elon Musk has formally accepted his invitation to the AI party the only way he knows how: by founding a company. Neuralink will create brain-enhancing digital implants; the first step on the road to merging humans with software. Musk has taken on the mantel of preserving the human race, and he believes the only way to counter the threat of AI’s rapid ascent is by meshing together biological and digital forms of intelligence.

To date, cyborgs have been the preserve of Sci-Fi. But Musk has form for bringing outlandish fantasies to bear. In fact, to Musk the cyborg is no fantasy at all. He recently argued that humans have already merged with technology. Musk is not the first to make the point: over half a century has passed since Marshall McLuhan declared technology “the extensions of man”. Who could doubt it? Not even the Amish, apparently.

Our existence is laced with digital interactions. When was the last time you went a day without any reliance on your tech devices? If it was a digital detox, it only proves the point.

We need not lean on Sci-Fi depictions to understand the implications of brain augmentation. Technology is enmeshed in our intellectual pursuits. Google has already assumed the role of virtual assistant, making it the perfect case study for exploring the benefits — and dangers — of digitally enhanced brains.

When I recently stumbled upon a mathematics problem, my first instinct was to formulate and solve the problem for myself. After obsessing over the problem for a few days, I turned to my second instinct: I Googled it. There was just one issue — I had no clear sense of what ‘it’ was. I had the makings of an interesting problem, represented symbolically as an equation with three unknowns. I did not know if the problem was familiar enough to have a name. I searched multiple terms, to no avail.

Google can make for a paltry oracle. Just like the Norden bombsight, the deadly accuracy of Google counts for little when the search is aimless.

With Google bearing no fruit, I gave in to the reflexive tendency of posting the problem online. It took a matter of minutes for the Reddit community to deliver. One member recognised my scrawling as a Pell equation; a well-known maths problem with established solutions. Moments after, another member directed my gaze to a beautiful illustration of the equation’s significance involving marching squares. It is a delight.

My quest for answers was complete, aided by technology but ultimately facilitated by humans. Technology was the means by which I connected with the collective intelligence of humans to stretch my own knowledge of mathematics. That certainly sounds like augmentation.

But my momentary relief gave way to an unsettling feeling. I had been robbed of my curiosity. My mathematical mystery was solved for me. The mathematician in me was silenced as answers gushed forth. Was this marginal gain in knowledge really worth surrendering my agency as a mathematician?

In its purest distillation, the experience of mathematics is defined by the journey towards understanding. The answer to a maths problem is far less illuminating than the process of formulating strategies, exercising intuition and exploring different solution paths.

Technology places knowledge at our fingertips. But knowledge is a double-edged sword. We need it to frame our understanding of problems and to develop lines of attack. But knowledge of the solution can take away all the mystery and creativity of problem solving — the core tenets of mathematical thinking.

Technology can accelerate our efforts to acquire knowledge, but decimate our intuitions by serving up answers at the inopportune time. Teachers find themselves in a dangerous place when students seek confirmation of an answer. It seems cruel to deprive students of any knowledge, yet it is crueller still to strip them of their ability to validate their own arguments. Technology is not designed to handle this situation with care. It is hell-bent on information processing with clinical efficiency, even at the expense of human understanding. Information versus insight is the Sophie’s choice of brain enhancement.

McLuhan was ahead of his time when he emphasised the medium over the message. The very shape of technologies can profoundly impact the way we interact with knowledge. Nicholas Carr has famously lamented that information-laden digital interfaces have reduced his literary brain to that of a skim-reader. I am equally concerned that knowledge-rich technologies will devolve humans into fast-track problem solvers.

Contemplative problem-solving is the mathematical equivalent of leisure reading. It should never be reduced time-bound solution grabbing.

The promise of cyborgs is that the combined force of human and digital intelligence will be greater than the sum of its parts. Our record with technology snipes away at this optimistic outlook. Digital intelligence that is predicated on information processing undermines our innate, human intelligence. Perhaps the most empowering role of technology is in connecting humans to our own, collective intelligence.

Something for Elon and others to think about as they plot their path to cognitive enhancement. Let’s just hope they don’t Google the answer.

Originally posted on Medium.

 

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