9.19.2005CNET News: Intelligence in the Internet age
A few thousand years ago, a Greek philosopher, as he snacked on dates on a bench in downtown Athens, may have wondered if the written language folks were starting to use was allowing them to avoid thinking for themselves.
Today, terabytes of easily accessed data, always-on Internet connectivity, and lightning-fast search engines are profoundly changing the way people gather information. But the age-old question remains: Is technology making us smarter? Or are we lazily reliant on computers, and, well, dumber than we used to be?
"Our environment, because of technology, is changing, and therefore the abilities we need in order to navigate these highly information-laden environments and succeed are changing," said Susana Urbina, a professor of psychology at the University of North Florida who has studied the roots of intelligence.
If there is a good answer to the question, it probably starts with a contradiction: What makes us intelligent--the ability to reason and learn--is staying the same and will never fundamentally change because of technology. On the other hand, technology, from pocket calculators to the Internet, is radically changing the notion of the intelligence necessary to function in the modern world.
What's undeniable is the Internet's democratization of information. It's providing instant access to information and, in a sense, improving the practical application of intelligence for everyone.
Nearly a century ago, Henry Ford didn't have the Internet, but he did have a bunch of smart guys. The auto industry pioneer, as a parlor trick, liked to claim he could answer any question in 30 minutes. In fact, he had organized a research staff he could call at any time to get him the answer.
Today, you don't have to be an auto baron to feign that kind of knowledge. You just have to be able to type G-O-O-G-L-E. People can in a matter of minutes find sources of information like court documents, scientific papers or corporate securities filings.
"The notion that the world's knowledge is literally at your fingertips is very compelling and is very beguiling," said Vint Cerf, who co-created the underlying architecture of the Internet and who is widely considered one of its "fathers." What's exciting "is the Internet's ability to absorb such a large amount of information and for it to be accessible to other people, even if they don't know it exists or don't know who you are."
Indeed, Doug Engelbart, one of the pioneers of personal computing technology in the 1960s, envisioned in the early '60s that the PC would augment human intelligence. He believes that society's ability to gain insight from information has evolved with the help of computers.
"The key thing about all the world's big problems is that they have to be dealt with collectively," Engelbart said. "If we don't get collectively smarter, we're doomed."
"We might one day sit around and reminisce about having to remember phone numbers, but it's not a bad thing. It frees us up to think about other things. The brain has a limited capacity, if you give it high-level tools, it will work on high-level problems," [Hawkins] said.
Technology hasn't taught us any new facts. Google doesn't (at least directly) discover truths about the world. It isn't even that important that information has become accessible. The key change here is that information has become accessible to everyone, and thus the epistemic standards we hold a person to have rise across the board.
1) Division of labor was for Plato an essential feature of the polis. When that labor is divided among machines, and when machines in fact provide the bulk of that labor (both mechanical and intellectual), should machines still be excluded from membership in that society?
2) The necessity of education in society means that the human as it is born is itself not sufficient for membership. The human must also be domesticated into the culture and conventions of the society, which includes a certain amount of common knowledge. Today that includes mathematical and linguistic knowledge as more or less non-negotiable requirements. Tomorrow, that common knowledge might extend to incorporate the information freely available on the net. This seems to imply that domestication will require significant integration with technology as a non-negotiable pre-requisite. Do such considerations affect your answer to 1 above?