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The more we use the Internet, the greater is our reliance on it.
The more we use the Internet, the greater is our reliance on it.

Put your knowledge to the test

Whether you agree or not, to quote the late Intel boss Andrew Grove, technology will always win

It’s said to be one of the toughest exams in the world— as demanding as studying for a degree in medicine or law. Looking at the dropout rate, it’s as challenging as training to become a US navy SEAL. It’s called The Knowledge, and it’s the exam you have to pass if you wish to drive a black cab in London.

Here is what it takes:

Every morning, you get on to your bike, clip a road map (a printed map; not a GPS device) on the handlebar, and go up and down a street or an alley, memorizing the route and all its landmarks. A candidate has to master at least 320 basic routes, each one of the city’s 25,000 streets within those routes, and several thousand landmarks and places of public interest that are located within a 6-mile (9.6km) radius of Charing Cross, a central London hub.

They must remember the location of every pub, park, hospital, church, and so on, within this 6-mile radius. And if a building has more than one entrance, they better know that too.

The test has several stages, starting with a written exam on the routes, and followed by several one-on-one interviews called “appearances" for which the candidates dress in suits. Three-five years of a gruelling work schedule, 35 hours a week, and there’s no guarantee that you will pass this one-of-a-kind test.

The test has been around since 1865. And last year Britain’s Channel 4 made a documentary about it called The Knowledge.

One of the candidates in the documentary is 60 years old, has seven children and 11 grandchildren, and his wife says that sometimes he can’t even remember his children’s names. When he comes to take the test, he has spent four and a half years trying to memorize the routes.

Every year 7,000 men and women take on the challenge. Only 30% survive. Says an examiner in the documentary: “You’ve got to eat, sleep and breathe The Knowledge."

Researchers at University College London studied the brains of the aspiring drivers for several years, and discovered that the entire process of training “stimulates brain development". A December 2011 report in Scientific American says: “Scientists can definitively say that London taxi drivers not only have larger-than-average memory centres in their brains, but also that their intensive training is responsible for the growth."

But the question is, in the age of GPS navigation, is the test really necessary? After all, Uber drivers don’t have to go through it. And Google Maps even alerts you about routes where traffic is heavy—something that a driver may not know without access to GPS. Why go on with the test when you have technology at hand to guide you?

Over the past few years I have been part of a team to assess graduate students for admission to a journalism programme. The candidates have to sit for a written exam, followed by an interview in which they are tested for their basic knowledge of the English language and current affairs.

As I interview the candidates, I often wonder if one should put more weight on their grammar and punctuation skills than on their general knowledge, for which they can always go to the net. I think it’s important that they know the difference between “advice" and “advise", and that a guerrilla is not the same as a gorilla. While I think it’s good if they have an idea of whether gorillas are found in Africa or Asia, their instinct is to go online and check.

The argument these days goes like this: In the age of Google search, why must we fill our brains with information that we can easily find online? Why not offload more and more tasks that used to rely on rote memorization to machines, and free our mind up to handle other more important things?

But there’s a downside. It’s called “cognitive offloading". Researchers at the University of California, Santa Cruz and University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign have found that “our increasing reliance on the internet and the ease of access to the vast resource available online is affecting our thought processes for problem solving, recall and learning". And the more we use the net, the greater our reliance on it.

Coming back to The Knowledge, why must black cab drivers have to memorize a route when they can very easily map it on a smartphone? Whether you agree or not, to quote the late Intel boss Andrew Grove, technology will always win.

Shekhar Bhatia is a science buff and a geek at heart.

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