The Skeptical Brain

Reflections on neuroscience and cultural history.

Can computers live for us?

We are transferring the business of being-in-the-world to machines

Scientists believe they have discovered a way of quantifying the process whereby native hunters are enabled to identify an animal from its spoor. While undeniably useful in some ways, should we be concerned about the shift in the way of thinking? Does it matter whether knowledge is within us, or accessible via a computer programme (an issue that is, to my mind, at the heart of the topical debate about how the internet modifies our minds, and goes back to Socrates's suspicion of writing)?

I trust it is not necessary to defend the view that the brain is not a static entity, but a dynamic system in constant dialogue with its culture and the environment, each reciprocally shaping the other. Such a view is, I hope, a truism, as is the assertion that the brain gets better at tasks the more it is engaged in them, and less good at them when it no longer has to perform them. There is a wealth of evidence of all kinds that this is so.

For some time researchers have tried to operationalise the knowledge that native African hunters and trackers use so that it may be simulated by computer. Incidentally, I have noticed that the research is defensively larded with terms such as ‘empowerment' and ‘recognition', the supposed benefits for the African trackers. These concepts beg important questions. ‘Empowered' by whom, and to do what, for whom and in what context? Is this ‘power' desired by those who are being so, apparently altruistically, ‘empowered'? And ‘recognition', by the way, by whom? Is this recognition, too, desired? Is it beneficial? Or perhaps irrelevant, and ultimately, even, bound up with damaging consequences? Whose values are these that we are so keen to promote? Perhaps the language is designed to direct our attention away from the obvious, that the skills of these people are being taken over by machines, and that they are being asked to collude in the demise of an aspect of their ancient culture, possibly (since they are described as functionally illiterate) without awareness that they are doing so.

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But there are broader questions about the ‘outsourcing' to a machine of implicit skills that are the product of experience, careful attention to the world and a respectful, symbiotic relationship with it. The question runs broader than the trackers themselves. Is it good that we should weaken implicit skills by making them explicit and exporting them for a computer to do for us? The relative specialisation of this particular kind of skill - the tracking of animals - built up in a specific geographical and ethnographical context, makes it in one way the more urgent, because when it goes, it has gone for good. But we are all the time doing something akin to this, nearer home for most of us, and the urgency of that matter depends, precisely on its general application in the Western, and increasingly Westernised, world.

Hunters and trackers learn not only to understand intellectually a bunch of facts about the animal they follow, but to feel their way into the very being of the animal. They learn that they need to imitate - in fact in some sense to ‘become' - the animal that they are following. Only so can they successfully predict what it is the animal would do in any one situation, and successfully continue to follow the spoor. This process involves all the senses - smell, sight, sound, taste and touch - an intimacy with the landscape, its rocks and its plants, as well as its animals and birds, a familiarity with the seasons, an ability to read the heavens by day and night, and the relationship of humankind to all of this, a place where the hunter himself comes to understand who he is in relation to the world, and what the world is in relation to him, and to his people. Through this process he may become fulfilled as a human being in a way that we can only look on at from the outside, and perhaps envy. When a computer seems to be doing this job for us, what is it leaving out? Does that matter? Does it matter only for the person with the skill that is being, however, insidiously, replaced - or for the rest of us as well?

It may well be objected that this is all rather romantic, and that the fact is that these developments are more minor in their impact than I make out (they may be now, but they will undoubtedly, if successful, entail further impacts - that is the inevitable history of technology). In addition, computers help us do things we can do anyway, but do them faster and on a larger scale, so that any collateral damage has to be accepted in the name of efficiency. But I am not so easily convinced. First of all the idea that something is ‘romantic' is designed to make an accusation of being ‘out of touch with reality' and prone to sloppy thinking. But it increasingly seems to me that the sloppy thinking is on the part of the one who wields this term. It often seems like a lazy way of dismissing all but a very simple-minded kind of analysis of human affairs, from which much of importance has been sheared off to make the calculations easier. That makes one less in touch, not more in touch, with reality. And why are we to suppose that doing more of something faster is necessarily a good idea? In many human situations doing more of something and doing it faster degrades the experience drastically. Is there not wisdom in a pace that is in keeping with the symbiotic relationship it supports?

I believe the significance of such issues in general is huge, but to me the most significant aspect of all concerns memory. We know more and more about the wide distribution of memory within the brain and indeed within the body outside the brain. It is not something inert and fixed, like the ‘memory bank' of a computer, to be consulted now and then when data are required, but something which is intrinsically bound up with who we are ... how we think and feel, and how we respond to the world around us. All that we experience, and everything we know and have ever learnt, though it may no longer be accessible on command to re-experience at will, goes to shape who we are and feeds in, to some extent - in the case of some things much more than others, to be sure - to how we see ourselves and the world. This is why Socrates was sceptical about the invention of writing. It meant that we no longer had to carry our wisdom within us.

And yet increasingly the value of memorising things, whether it be facts about the world or pieces of poetry, or of carrying out cognitive tasks ourselves, is downgraded, since we believe we know where to go to find such things or to get them done for us. As a result these pieces of reality and these skills no longer have to inhabit us - or we them. But doesn't this drastically alter who we are, how we respond, and what we intuit? Intuitions are of crucial importance, and are never just a simple given. Our intuitions vary, and those with the best intuitions are those who have reasoned well, and learnt a lot, and acquired much experience. That is, they have sophisticated memories. We can't outsource that to a computer. Otherwise we may soon be in danger of saying (to paraphrase the French fin-de-siècle writer Villiers de l'Isle-Adam): ‘as for living, our computers can do that for us'.

 

 

 

 

 

Dr. Iain McGilchrist is a former Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, and a Fellow of the Royal College of Psychiatrists more...

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