First published in Dutch on the 28th of January 2010

A future filled with cybernetic beings

On the fourth of January 2010 Ray Kurzweil was Raoul Heertje’s guest in the television show Wintergasten. Kurzweil is known for his work as a futurologist and was interviewed by Heertje about his vision of the future. He believes that humankind will rapidly develop into cybernetic beings, part human and part computer. He predicts a symbiosis between man and machine which is more profound than our relationship with pacemakers or computer controlled arm prostheses today. Our brain will have immediate access to the internet; we will be able to ‘see’ the computer screen in our minds and control it, too.

Kurzweil argues that our mental abilities will increase exponentially as a result of our contact with the internet. We will refrain from following the normal course of biological evolution all other species on earth depend on. With help of gene technology and the neurologic symbiosis with computers we will be able to control our evolution entirely. Gene technology makes us stronger and cybernetics makes us smarter.

Plausible scenario

I believe that the technical aspects of Kurzweil’s future form a plausible scenario. His logic is reasonable. Sixty years ago computers were as big as a living room, twenty years later they were the size of a closet, add another ten years and they were the size of a tv, and then they became as small as a binder, then a pocket book, to eventually gain the size of a cell phone. New generations of computers are rapidly produced getting ever smaller and more powerful. It is only a matter of time when they will become so tiny that they can be injected into our bodies. Simultaneously, our knowledge about the human brain is growing. A logical conclusion is that we will indeed be able to attach minuscule computers to the right neurological systems allowing us to access the internet with our minds. Nanotechnology will greatly influence our future in this respect.

A smarter human part I?

From my perspective as an educational psychologist an interesting question would be whether this scenario would indeed make us more intelligent and result in an exponential mental evolution like the one Kurzweil describes. It is an interesting question because it touches upon our understanding of what ‘intelligence’ means. In Kurzweil’s future we will have access to a massive pool of information in a blink of an eye. Literally! But does it really make us any smarter? Do I become a better mathematician when a calculator is implanted directly in my brain rather than having to carry it around in my pocket? Does the Encyclopedia Brittanica make me any smarter than a pocket dictionary?

A pool of information or the right information?

One aspect of Kurzweil’s assumption seems to be that access to information and the amount of information are the most important criteria to measure intelligence. But does this hold true? It reminds me of students who are convinced that open book exams are easier than closed book exams. They think they do not have to study as hard, but the opposite is true. They will have to have an accurate sense of the contents of a book if they are to find the correct information quickly and efficiently. Especially with a weighty tome it is not enough to merely have it within reach for quick reference. As soon as students cannot bring their books, they tend to cram information into their heads until they think ‘it’ will stick. This strategy often does not prove effective either, since students tend to forget the details: “I know I read it somewhere, but what was it?”

Kurzweil makes the same mistake many of my students make. They both believe it is sufficient to have access to a pool of information. However, access to information is not the problem for modern people; rather, the challenge is to find the right information in the jungle of trivial data to help achieve your goals.

A smarter human part II?

Another aspect of Kurzweil’s assumption seems to focus on the factuality of information; in his view data needs to be irrefutable. However, the problem is that with every topic the dividing line between black and white, right and wrong, truth and falsehood becomes increasingly fuzzy at a certain level; instead, interpretations, personal preferences, and argumentation become important factors. This is the reason why students as they progress in their academic studies will find that their competence is no longer measured by their ability to reproduce knowledge. Rather, their skill and competence on an academic level is measured by means of a student’s ability to apply certain thought processes.

This is no different for functioning cleverly in society. We encounter situations in which we need to act on interpretation and sound judgment all the time. The ability to interpret and judge data well does not improve with speed of light access to the internet. Now I only need to account for a limited number of variables, whereas in Kurzweil’s future I would have to take numerous factors in account when making a decision.

Imagine that technology could increase my ability to judge; after all, there are computer programs available that will make “judgments.” Think, for instance, of the chess programs that can beat even the best human chess players. Kurzweil is undoubtedly right in arguing that the mathematical power of computers will only increase, resulting in lightening-fast calculations of infinite numbers of variables. The Einsteins of the future may indeed be defeated in various areas by such powerful computers. But the question remains, do these computers make us any smarter as soon as they are implanted in our brains?

Human memory

Our thinking is guided by our memory. This memory consists of numerous constructions large and small which together form a delicate network. This network consists partly of factual information (knowledge) and procedures to act (skills) and partly of personal experiences, beliefs, and emotions. The latter group of components is essential in our functioning; they are inextricably bound with human memory. Knowledge and skills are neutral terms. They do not represent a certain degree of importance in and of themselves. Only when they are surveyed in a particular frame of reference can one distinguish between knowledge and ‘good’ knowledge. It is experiences, beliefs, and emotions that play an essential part in making careful and, most of all, sound judgments.

It is useful to have an immense amount of information permanently within reach, but it will not necessarily improve our ability to think; moreover, it may even make it harder. It does not essentially change the way our brains function. Despite the extended databases, our working memory will still have a relatively limited capacity. Furthermore, our thinking will always be guided mainly by our emotions, our desires, our doubts and fears. A mountain of factual information will not change that.

My view was confirmed only yesterday (26 January 2010) when I read an article in the Dutch newspaper, De Volkskrant, which bore the title, “More than 150 Facebook friends pointless.” Research conducted by Professor R. Dunbar from Oxford University shows that the Facebook obsession with gaining as many online “friends” as possible is, in fact, pointless. You may have 5000 contacts, but neurologically we are only capable to keep track of 150 social contacts meaningfully at a time.

Technology as Tool

However much technology and our thought processes may come together, in my opinion technology will never be part of our thinking. If ever the day comes that it will, we risk losing a fundamental part of our humanity. Sometimes, students who are working on their theses beg me, “Tell me what I should do and I will do it. I do not need to understand. I just want it finished.” Even if I had the desired information, I would still not be able to help them with it; for if I would, the essence of academic education would be undermined. Students need to find their own ways of tackling the material they find. Only when they learn to overcome their mistakes and their doubts can they become competent academics upon graduation.

The same process is essential in the daily lives of everybody else. Our functioning as human beings is determined by our ability to take control of our thinking and our actions. Technology should never relieve us of that responsibility. Technological advancements are fantastic, but they can (and must) never fulfill any other role than to remain a wonderful tool with which to fashion our lives.