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Are Machines Dumbing Us Down?

The idea that technology is causing us to lose our mental edge won't go away

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Are these machines making us stupid? Image courtesy of Flickr user aranath

Once upon a time a man did something that made many parents happy. He invented a mobile app. Not  just any mobile app, but a special one that helped adults create bedtime stories that made kids feel their parents were wise and wonderful. And everyone lived happily, at least until the next morning.

This magical app, called “The Infinite Adventure Machine,” is the work of Frenchman David Benque, who figured that if he provided the basic components of any righteous adventure story—the hero leaves home, meets villain, gets tricked by villain, learns lessons about himself or herself, vanquishes villain, basks in hero worship—more parents would try to spin original tales .

This is a good thing, right, a shining example of how a machine can make us more creative? Perhaps. Or you could view Benque’s brainstorm through a darker filter—that it’s another case of machines doing the heavy lifting while humans fill in the blanks.

I know, how diabolical could a fairy tale app be? But it does touch on a worrisome quandary—the more technology does for us, the more we lose our edge.

Late last month ABC News did a report about “automation addiction,” citing a study concluding that automated flight systems and auto-pilot features on commercial aircraft have made pilots less capable of dealing with mechanical failures and emergencies. A few days before that, the Wall Street Journal ran a story about how genetically modified crops have made farming so much easier that farmers aren’t nearly as diligent when it comes to battling pests. And Ari Schulman in The New Atlantis has pondered whether GPS, because it separates the acts of driving and navigating, is making us worse drivers.

Inside the shrinking bubble

In his provocative piece in The Atlantic a few years ago, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”, Nicholas Carr surmised that we’re moving toward a world where “intelligence is the output of a mechanical process, a series of discrete steps that can be isolated, measured and optimized.” We’ll struggle more with abstract thought, he argued, and view ambiguity simply as something to be fixed. 

And now comes Eli Pariser, who says in his book The Filter Bubble that Google and Facebook are reflecting the world through us-colored glasses. He points out that most people don’t realize that little of what’s fed to us on the Web now is impartial; it’s usually what search engines or social networks assume we want, based on our past behavior. They interpret our interests and, in doing so, skew what they send our way. Together, says Pariser, we and the Web shape the ever-shrinking bubbles in which we live and learn.

In a TED talk earlier this year, Pariser bemoaned the shift from the human gatekeepers of old media to the algorithmic ones of today’s Web. “We really need the Internet to connect us all together, to introduce us to new ideas and new people,” he lamented.  “And it’s not going to do that if it leaves us all isolated in a Web of one.”

Bleak stuff. Of course, not everyone thinks technology is turning us into self-gazing mushheads. Marina Gorbis, executive director of the Institute for the Future, thinks we just need to work out a new division of labor with smart machines. And the key to that, she says, is realizing what we’re uniquely good at.

Predicts Gorbis: “Over the next decade…we’ll enter a new kind of partnership with these machines—one that will shine light on the unique comparative advantages of humans: thinking, creativity, spontaneity, adaptability and improvisation.”

Thanks, Marina, I needed that.

Bonus: Did you realize that almost 70 percent of the trading on Wall Street now is based on algorithms? Kevin Slavin lays out how algorithms, the math of machines, are reshaping the world.

So be honest, do you think the Web is making you a weaker thinker?

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