Can Artificial Intelligence Make Us Stupid?
With intelligent machines to do the thinking, will our brains get lazy?
Posted July 29, 2015
Changing technology stimulates the brain and increases intelligence. But that may only be true if the technology challenges us. In a world run by intelligent machines, our lives could get a lot simpler. Would that make us less intelligent?
The Age of Machines
After the Industrial Revolution, machines began to replace manual workers. The process played out in agriculture as well as manufacturing so that hordes of agricultural workers were displaced and forced to move to cities to make a living.
When machines took away much of the manual work, people became less physically active and gained weight. Sedentary lifestyle contributed to a worldwide epidemic of obesity and related metabolic disorders such as heart disease, secondary diabetes and kidney disease.
As our bodies rested, our brains were forced to work harder, however. It is much more difficult to navigate a congested modern city than it is to move around in a small rural village, for instance. Modern jobs are also more complex and time urgent and they require more education because employees need to process new information quickly.
Even during our leisure time, our brains work harder due to greater availability of books, and proliferation of audiovisual media, for entertainment, study, music, news, and so forth.
Now in the Internet age, the volume of information grows exponentially along with sophistication in electronic technologies (1). The number of people with whom we interact electronically grows by leaps and bounds thanks to the ease of use of social media like Facebook and Twitter.
All of this extra work for our brains makes us more intelligent (2). That helps explain why human intelligence increases steadily from generation to generation in all developed countries, a phenomenon named the Flynn Effect. Of course, there are other reasons, including improved nutrition, better obstetric practices that reduce brain damage, and improved sanitation and public health that reduce diseases of childhood.
The Jeeves Effect
In the P. G Wodehouse novels, Bertie Wooster got away with being a twit because Jeeves was there to back him up with superior brain power. In this analogy, people of the future are at risk of being less intelligent because machines will do their thinking for them.
Will artificial intelligence really enslave us? After all, the electronic calculator never stopped students from learning math, as educators had feared.
Artificial intelligence is taking over many human jobs (3). For instance planes are being flown much of the time by automatic pilots. Moreover, the complex problem of controlling air traffic around large modern airports is also achieved by artificial intelligence that operates well beyond the capability of mere human air traffic controllers (1). Computer programs are also capable of testing scientific hypotheses and writing poetry, or even novels.
Artificial intelligence is embedded in many features of modern life for the simple reason that intelligent machines can already outperform humans, including some aptitudes where there was once thought to be a human advantage, such as playing chess, or recalling trivia in a game of Jeopardy. (IBM computers defeated Gary Kasparov and Ken Jennings at their respective games).
Machine intelligence is increasing much faster than human intelligence thanks to Moore's Law (an exponential increase in electronic processing capacity over time, 1). As machines get smarter, they will do more of our thinking for us and make life easier.
The Easy Life
Electronic systems will likely get more user friendly. Instead of struggling to identify ourselves to some electronic system via passwords that are secure only if they are hard to remember, the system will work harder to identify us using biometrics such as fingerprints, iris photographs, or even the individual sound of our hearts.
More technologies of the future may also be voice activated so that keyboards will be used less. We will converse with machines much as we would talk to a friend, or a butler (if we had one).
In the future, the electronic assistant will develop to the point that it serves similar functions as a real living butler, fulfilling requests such as: “Organize a dinner party for six on Thursday, Jeeves, and invite the usual suspects.”
At that point, our long struggle with challenging technologies is at an end. Like Bertie Wooster, we can take it easy knowing that the hard work of planning and organizing is being done by a better brain – the electronic assistant. Starved of mental effort, our brains will regress. The future is an aristocratic fog.
1 Kurzweil, R. (2005). The singularity is near. New York: Viking/Penguin.
2 Barber, N. (2006). Is the effect of national wealth on academic achievement mediated by mass media and computers? Cross-Cultural Research, 40, 130-151.
3 Rifkin, J. (2014). The zero marginal cost society. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.