Tossup for ten points: what does the American soldier in a firefight in AfPak have in common with distracted drivers trying to navigate a city's busy and unpredictable streets at rush hour, and me trying to write my next journal paper? Answer: all these cases illustrate an increasingly common phenomenon: our individual human cognition as the low bandwidth component of a broadband networked world. Too much information changing too fast overloads individual processing capability. Social and technological response: "augcog," or "augmented cognition".
OK, let's unpack this a little. The soldier is trying to stay alive in the modern combat environment, where he or she is being bombarded with vast amounts of information - some comes from the technologies they carry, and increasingly from the technologies of their fellow soldiers; some from unmanned aerial vehicles providing data and video feeds on the broader battlefield; some from other technologies such as vehicles and ground sensor systems; and some from, of course, their own senses (picture source: U.S. Armed Forces and Honeywell Laboratories). Some distracted drivers may have some of the characteristics associated with aging individuals such as slower reaction times, while younger drivers may be texting while driving, causing a lack of attention to their immediate environment. Working on my latest article, I toggle back and forth between Google and the text, between my archival memory on the Net and my far smaller working memory in my wetware brain (it is a lovely self-referential irony that I'm writing about augcog). In all these cases, and in many more - augmented reality apps, for example - the complexity of the environment cannot be fully engaged by the individual consciousness; more generally, the ability to pick out, identify and respond to critical data is more and more problematic as the sheer amount of potentially relevant information increases exponentially, and cycles ever more rapidly.
And so augcog as a new area of research and development that applies emerging technologies - sometimes characterized as the Five Horsemen: nanotech, biotech, robotics, information and communication technology, and applied cognitive science - to overcome the ever more apparent limitations of the individual human brain in understanding and managing the complex adaptive systems and information overload that increasingly surround us. Augcog is a rapidly growing field, with its own society, the Augmented Cognition International Society. Like many technological systems, it isn't a new idea, but the speed at which it is developing, and the rapidity with which it is shifting the locus of cognition from the individual to techno-human networks, are increasingly challenging.
And what does augcog say about us? First, note what augcog really is: a technological response to our dwindling ability as individuals to keep up with the complexity of the environment we are busy creating. And augcog does that by migrating cognition away from the individual onto technological systems and networks. Some of the behaviors of these networks represent what might be called "congealed cognition," because the component technologies are, after all, the product of other individuals in other times who designed and built them. Some of the behavior arises from the networks themselves, as their dynamics and structures shift over time, creating unpredictable and continually changing constraints, emergent behaviors, opportunities, and new networks and subnetworks. Think of unseen threats approaching a battle zone, or a car suddenly swerving to avoid a darting child while the following driver is texting, or Google popping up a citation I hadn't known about as I write. Augcog is both a remarkable achievement of a species that can't help but couple to the technologies it develops, and a stunning demonstration of just how inadequate our own little contained cognition is. It really is true: You want the future? You can't handle the future! But with a little technology, you can be part of the integrated human-technology systems that increasingly will be the locus of cognitive processes in that future.
Now if we only knew what that meant. As T. S. Eliot put it, "Between the idea and the reality . . . falls the shadow"; between the individual consciousness, and sociological analysis and social psychology, falls the techno-human cognitive network, still a mysterious shadow to us.

The Techno-Human Condition

Reflections on science, technology, and what it means to be human today
Brad Allenby

Brad Allenby is the Lincoln Professor of Ethics and Engineering, and professor of civil, environmental, and sustainable engineering, at Arizona State University.

Daniel Sarewitz

Dan Sarewitz is professor of science and society, and co-founder and co-director of the Consortium for Science, Policy, and Outcomes, at Arizona State Univertsity.

Most Recent Posts from The Techno-Human Condition

Augmented Cognition: On Beyond Zebra, For Sure

When human consciousness and cognition isn't enough - evolve augmented cognition

Who’s In Charge?

Do we get to decide how technologies will change us?

What Is To Be Done

Why today's policies regarding human enhancement don't work