In an excerpt that I had read from Clive Thompson’s book Smarter Than You Think, the topic on the power of human cognition and how technology affects it made me really delve into this discussion. In his book, Thompson goes in depth into the questions of whether or not the emergence of computers have become a substitute or “crutch” for our expanding learning and thinking. He uses a series of examples to analyze this concept and asks the reader to think about their own understandings on the subject from past experiences.
One of the most intriguing examples that I read from the book was the event of a chess competition in 1997 between the grand master champion of the time, Garry Kasparov and the “Deep Blue” Supercomputer. The opponents had played a total of 6 consecutive games and by the final round, the supercomputer had won within a mere 19 moves! The astonishment of the situation was from the fact that it was said to have been able to comprehend over 200 million moves each second of each game, much faster than any human could even process. From this event, Thompson went on to raise the notion that, with technology ever progressing at a rapid rate, is it safe to say that computers themselves will triumph over our own cognitive abilities? I for one definitely say no, and from Thompson’s later arguments, he seems to think so as well.
I believe that technology can be used as a means of furthering our thinking patterns in ways beyond simple comprehension and calculations. In past articles, I wrote about the aesthetics of how the computers themselves act as essentially “tools” for connecting us to each other’s thoughts, ideas, and new discoveries of information. In the book, Thompson brings up an important chess event that occurred in 1998 which is brought to fruition the idea of the Kasparov Centaur. This concept was based around the fact that a human player could team with a supercomputer and play against an opposing team consisting of another player and another supercomputer. Kasparov and his computer played against another supercomputer and a chess grand master by the name of Veselin Topalov. The supercomputers from both teams had the ability to recognize forms of patterns and possible plays to gain an advantage for the respective sides, but the human players had the ability to use intuition to play the tournament towards their own advantage. This form of play was a prime example of how humans and computer technology “collaborated” between each other to accomplish a given goal and work efficiently. What was amazing statistically from this event was that prior to the use of the supercomputers, Kasparov would beat Topalov 4-0. The odds, however, were evened out with a resulting a 3-3 win between both of them with the help of the supercomputers.
While reading about the advantages of collaborative use in technology, it allowed me to realize that there is more to the benefits of its use in our society than simply using efficient programming to perform simple tasks or connect with others around the world. Cognition, as my neuroscience professor once put it, is “the collecting of all the information that we perceive from our senses, experiences, and insights so that we may be able to form a basic understanding of a subject of interest and apply it”. It is a mental process that is constantly evolving and changing the way in which we think. Because we are constantly being fed new information and trying to make sense of it, technology is a way of “storing that new information” and helping us make sense out of it. Thompson defends this claim by bringing up the nature that digital technology is just a further advancement in the consolidation of new information. I find it interesting that he brings up the point that man has been collecting new knowledge for centuries since the explosion of paper and writing utensil usage. Digital technology is just the advancement of what people have done for so long, just putting it onto a screen and seeing where to take this idea of sharing and storing knowledge. I have to say that the collecting of information and data is more than just that. It is a direct representation of the thinking and understanding of humans. Physicist Richard Feynman once told historian Charles Weiner once that his own writings are not merely “day to day works”, but ARE his “train of thought”!
Coming from this concept, we can relate this idea to the “rewiring of the brain”. We adapt all the time to the changes and advancements that the modern age brings us with technology, and while some argue with statements that “computers make us stupid”, there is much more to the debate than that! Sure, it may be hard to ignore that many people may be too reliant on the usage of
technology for performing small or simple tasks that may not take as much thought, but it is also hard to ignore the amount of good that it has brought.
When I ask myself about the pros and cons of digital technologies, I reflect on my own personal experiences with it. There are times when I realize how dependent some people can be on the need for digital services to accomplish simple tasks like calculating a tip after a meal when eating at a restaurant, or performing a simple arithmetic calculations when it can be done so mentally. It is easy to see the real problems of it being used as a crutch, but when it is used to be so much more as a “tool” for learning, then it has the potential for helping us achieve feats that transcend beyond these daily activities.
As I said previously, I believe that it can be used to increase our cognitive ability and connect. Computers are great with considering infinite numbers of options to play a game of strategy like chess, predict weather patterns for the future forecast, or even maintain stocks and calculate percentages of net gains and losses, but at the end of the day, it still is meant to be used a service to mankind. We see in the movies and books about “post apocalyptic” futures where machines have a thinking of their own, but I would say that that cannot be a case as we have control over our technology. We have a choice of setting a boundary on what we can achieve, and it is only through our cognitive abilities that technology can come as far as it is. As Thompson argues, it is the innovation of man and his plethora of knowledge at his disposal that has made technology to accomplish feats meant to help us. We can solve problems and find creative solutions in much faster ways with it.
The book claims that in our current time, we have a more “public thinking” which allows us to share ideas and through using tools like the internet, we are able to shrink the amounts of information into more manageable ways. If we think about it this way, our constant expansion of learning networks and growth of information is still needed to innovate and continue to solve growing problems that concern society, no matter what they may be. This can only be pursued, however, if we look at it in the perspective of “collaboration” and less of a competition between our own cognitive abilities and a computer’s. After reading some of the ideas in this book, I hope to research more into the topic of Kasparov’s Centaur and see how its ideas influenced much of the technology landscape of today. I don’t doubt it will be interesting reading to follow up on!