Evolution and intellect
June 18, 2009 8:20 AM   Subscribe

On hive minds, “cognitive calisthenics”, “You+”. Cascio predicts that in the near future “many more humans will have the capacity to do something that was once limited to a hermetic priesthood”. Get Smart, by Jamais Cascio, the Atlantic, July/August 2009
posted by mareli (26 comments total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Talk into a shoe?
posted by now i'm piste at 8:27 AM on June 18, 2009

Wait... did this just say that twitter will save us all? Methinks I see false prophets...
posted by Nanukthedog at 8:36 AM on June 18, 2009

My kitten just sneezed!
posted by no_moniker at 8:38 AM on June 18, 2009

Cheap remark: it's Mondo2000 all over again! Yay!

Having said that, the line "if there’s a technique for beating out rivals (no matter how risky), shutting it down is nearly impossible" strikes me as being deeply true, even though societies spend a fortune in time & money pretending otherwise.
posted by aramaic at 8:42 AM on June 18, 2009

My online fennel club will save us all.
posted by fleetmouse at 8:49 AM on June 18, 2009 [3 favorites]

What about all the species that have remained the same after eons of environmental upheaval?
posted by No Robots at 8:51 AM on June 18, 2009

Somehow I'm getting the feeling that you aren't unbiased about all this technological augmentation, No Robots.
posted by no_moniker at 8:55 AM on June 18, 2009

Hey, bees have some groovy technology, too.
posted by No Robots at 8:59 AM on June 18, 2009

The nascent jargon of the field describes this as "intelligence augmentation." I prefer to think of it as "You+."

We can call it the Nöocene epoch...

It’s an induced form of ADD—a "continuous partial attention-deficit disorder," if you will.

We’ll move from a world of "continuous partial attention" to one we might call "continuous augmented awareness."

In the future, we'll mint unnecessary buzzwords at a geometric rate of increase—a phenomenon I like to call "writing for the book proposal."
posted by Iridic at 9:10 AM on June 18, 2009 [9 favorites]

This is the fifth time the Atlantic has appeared on the blue this week, for those counting.
posted by swift at 9:12 AM on June 18, 2009

I've never heard of modafinil before. Anyone here have experience with that? Maybe it gives the illusion of intelligence like cocaine. Wikipedia says that 3 studies on cognitive enhancement are inconclusive.
posted by bhnyc at 9:13 AM on June 18, 2009

The neuro physi ol ogist William Calvin argues persuasively that modern human cognition—including sophisticated language and the capacity to plan ahead—evolved in response to the demands of this long age of turbulence.

Cascio appears to be referring to this book, but naturally offers no evidence for the claim. It's unclear to me if there's any actual evidence for this theory (that adaption due to abrupt climate change spurred on structural change in human cognition), or even what said evidence would look like. It sure seems like just more empty EP speculation. Anyone read the Calvin book?

Speaking of evolutionary psychology and the empty speculation it tends to engender, William Deresiewicz recently penned an excellent article on this subject for The Nation.
posted by ornate insect at 9:23 AM on June 18, 2009 [3 favorites]

I can't even tell you how much I think the human race needs to investigate this technology.

We are in serious need of an upgrade.
posted by lumpenprole at 9:23 AM on June 18, 2009

This piece did at least a reasonable effort balancing the dangers and benefits of the various modifications, along with the very real inevitableness of it.

Now where are my fingertip magnets?
posted by Lemurrhea at 9:28 AM on June 18, 2009

This piece mashed together lots of things - the chances are he's not wrong about all of them.

Nootropics - sounds like cocaine for neo-yuppies (and apparently it has a side-effect of causing the user to create neologisms). They don't make you smarter in the sense that I'm smarter than my laptop, they make you smarter in the sense that my laptop is smarter than my mobile phone. I could believe in drugs that make you think faster, focus longer, or even memorise and recall better, but I honestly don't think any of those things would make me meaningfully smarter. Not in the sense that agriculture has made me smarter, by enabling me to not work on the land, and giving me time and a reason to pursue education. There's another reason nootropics don't matter:

Intelligence-augmenting technology ("we can call it "the Internet""). I am not the only person on Metafilter that has used superior ability in getting information from Google to outperform others at work. I'm not the only one that's used Visual Basic to automate the spadework in my job because a 3hr job by hand can be done with 2hrs learning enough VB then 5min execution. Large chunks of previously human intelligence are becoming obsolete, or only for specialists, like arithmetic. The barrier to looking something up is so low now that the memory in your head is just a high speed cache for stuff you need to know all the time, or stuff you particularly want to know permanently. This will have a huge, if delayed, effect on university subjects like biology, law, and medicine, which involve a lot of memorisation. I'm sure it won't be very long before word processors automatically find the information we want to type as we type. Of course, all this type of technology will only get better for certain people since the information will still be produced, filtered, and supplied by untrustworthy parties. It will be great for governments, corporations and the info-literate, and worse than the current media for those that don't have the education to deal with it.

Is Google making us smarter or dumber? It depends on how parochial you are with your definition of intelligence.

It still feels like cheating when I use grep to help me on crosswords!
posted by Wrinkled Stumpskin at 11:16 AM on June 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

Such a future would bear little resemblance to Brave New World or similar narcomantic nightmares; we may fear the idea of a population kept doped and placated, but we’re more likely to see a populace stuck in overdrive, searching out the last bits of competitive advantage, business insight, and radical innovation.
Oh, great.
posted by ford and the prefects at 11:18 AM on June 18, 2009 [2 favorites]

I like the idea of the internet aiding adaptation, but evolution works along the line of procreation, as well.
sadly, most of the breeders I meet aren't using the internet to broaden their awareness of social context. They're 17-19 year olds using it to focus a magnifying glass on the minutia of their own lives. I like to think we'll leave a glorious time capsule of our intellectual potential, so long as the alien archiologists can wade through the thick sediment of gaudy social networking pages.

I can see it now:

Earth Project log, stardate 7-C30
We were tracking down the last relics of the great body-philosopher/ transhuman Shannon Larrett, when a stray hyperlink on a BME message board brought us to a myspace page so caked with animated gifs and warbling auto-play media that our Venusian Html-Rosettatron suffered a fatal system failure. Three weeks of research gone!

posted by es_de_bah at 11:21 AM on June 18, 2009

I've never heard of modafinil before. Anyone here have experience with that?

I can't attest to the focus powers, because I've only used it when exhausted from partying, but it sure as hell kept me awake and functioning at work when by all rights I should have been asleep under my desk.

I really should try it when I'm not already destroyed.
posted by aramaic at 11:25 AM on June 18, 2009

I don't think you have to be parochial with definitions to see that there's a whole side of humanity that does not involve constant, conscious knowledge manipulation, a side which isn't really augmented so much as totally changed when filtered through these new technologies. I'm thinking of all manner of human relations, love, friendship, family, work, politics, where our desires, capacities and limits are hidden to us or only revealed when we make a leap of faith and decide to act, a messy pre reflective stumble not necessarily amenable to foresight or analysis. And the more we try to fit these relations into technological systems the more they end up transformed beyond all recognition, dating websites being the most obvious suspect, capable of turning all those things we had previously learned to tease out in more or less awkward/nervous/sophisticated/guileful ways into something explicitly declarable, compilable, rankable, sortable.
posted by doobiedoo at 12:51 PM on June 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

doobiedoo: I agree totally. I was trying, somewhat awkwardly, to argue that all the "explicitly declarable, compilable, rankable, sortable" stuff isn't really what makes us us. But my personal definition of human intelligence involves knowing what is a matter of adding, averaging, and filtering, and what isn't. Automating all of the automatable stuff leaves us room to be more human. If my personal software suite analyses the market options, my personal routine, my finances, and my preferences, and chooses a car for me, I'm not diminished in the slightest. My possessions are not me.

On the other hand, I don't like it when someone sees one of my social networking pages and evaluates whether we have compatible tastes in music before we go on a date. Why would anyone want to automate an enjoyable process like getting to know someone? Not that it's any skin off my nose if other people want to. I'm sure some people are horrified at the idea of choosing a car automatically.

I think the dividing line is somewhere around Amazon's "other customers who bought this item"... halfway between useful and creepy.
posted by Wrinkled Stumpskin at 1:40 PM on June 18, 2009

"The amount of data we’ll have at our fingertips will be staggering, but we’ll finally have gotten over the notion that accumulated information alone is a hallmark of intelligence. The power of all of this knowledge will come from its ability to inform difficult decisions, and to support complex analysis."

This spirit of community decision making will ultimately be the lasting legacy of the first fifty years. Not the gazillionaires. Not the top-down control freaks of guerilla commerce. Instead, it will be the work-at-home moms, the redneck artists and poets, the shy nerds with decades of expression to release... all working together for a common good.

Thanks for your first post mareli. Welcome.
posted by netbros at 4:51 PM on June 18, 2009

Large chunks of previously human intelligence are becoming obsolete, or only for specialists, like arithmetic. The barrier to looking something up is so low now that the memory in your head is just a high speed cache for stuff you need to know all the time, or stuff you particularly want to know permanently.

This would be wonderful if human memory were no more than a filing cabinet, and its efficacy was measured only by the speed at which its drawers opened and closed. Electronic databases have long bested neurons at velocity, volume, and accuracy of retrieval; so have paper dictionaries, for that matter.

But memory's not a cabinet; it's not a container for ideas so much as the whole dynamic churn of the ideas themselves. When two facts sit next to each other in a dictionary, or a file folder, or a Wikipedia index, they can't of themselves create a third fact. That's not the case with memory, where two incidents laid down in memory together can summon up an idea never anticipated; where the act of recall always leaves the imprint of a new context on a reminiscence; where recall can change not only the structure of a single memory but the structure of the mind as a whole.

Google's lovely, but it can't quite forge great associative chains of learning and emotion and understanding and stories to the inner stuff of one's identity. I'd welcome a machine that aided that process, as I would welcome machines that nurtured deliberation, care, compassion, grace, solemnity, and clear-eyed judgment - all of which we will need if we are to escape our present difficulties. Cascio's remedies, I'm afraid, seem simply scaled up versions of things we have already. Faster processors, better amphetamines, nimbler search engines...as though it were the speed of the thoughts that mattered, and not the thoughts themselves!
posted by Iridic at 5:10 PM on June 18, 2009 [5 favorites]

The problem is that simply having expert tools does not make you-- or a community you create-- into an expert. Community decision making can be wonderful-- except when it leads to "vaccines cause autism" or other examples in which a little bit of knowledge is twisted and people lack the analytical skills to distinguish between science that makes sense and pseudoscience.

Replacing a travel agent with software and replacing a scientist with software aren't exactly comparable. If you have a lousy vacation, it's a very different than having a harmful medical treatment or failing to get an effective one.

We really need to educate people better on critical thinking and on how the human brain works and what its biases are and how to deal with these issues in collaborative decision-making if we are going to manage to cope with this complex new world.
posted by Maias at 5:14 PM on June 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

Faster processors, better amphetamines, nimbler search engines...as though it were the speed of the thoughts that mattered, and not the thoughts themselves!

Yes, the idea of people having a lot of idiotic thoughts quickly doesn't seem very appealing, largely due to the Dunning-Kruger Effect.*

*(Sorry for Wikilink, but I am having a few idiotic thoughts slowly and thus couldn't be bothered to search for a better article that wasn't behind a paywall.)
posted by Sidhedevil at 5:52 PM on June 18, 2009

intellectual specialization <> smarter population. just because we are so urbanised as to allow a large proportion of us to live the intellectual lifestyle does not mean that as a species we are any smarter, or that as a society we make decisions any better. Drugs will not make you a genius. Medicine will not make you live forever. The world has hard limits, we may stretch them, but not break them.
posted by Dillonlikescookies at 7:40 PM on June 20, 2009

In the future, cognitive-enhancement drugs and advanced computing algorithms will show you that what you might think is a mind-blowing visionary prediction is actually banal speculation wrapped up in nonsense neologisms, and you'll be able to stop yourself from writing an article that would make you look like a fool.
posted by univac at 8:09 PM on June 23, 2009

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