Home / Opinion / Columns /  Will technology turn human beings intellectually lazy?

There was a time when memorizing multiplication tables, phone numbers and landmarks along a journey route counted as essential life skills. Then calculators, smartphones and Google Maps took charge of those traditional functions of the human brain. Today’s trends are very clear. As technology makes rapid progress, more human tasks will be taken over by digital technology. Now, with the introduction of ChatGPT , OpenAI’s chatbot that uses artificial intelligence (AI), several big questions are brewing. Which human functions will it consume? With the human brain having even fewer tasks to perform, will mental inactivity lead to intellectual laziness?

The sea squirt is a tiny marine creature with an odd lifestyle. It starts life swimming with the aid of a brain and nervous system, but, after attaching itself to its permanent home, it digests these now-superfluous organs and leads a vegetable-like existence. The sea squirt reminds us what our brains have evolved for: to orchestrate and express active movement. Those adapting to a couch-potato lifestyle will lose brain power. Will advances in AI cause this tragedy of organ inactivity among humans?

As an agricultural economy gave way to an industrial economy, and as machines took away much of the manual work, people became less physically active. Sedentary lifestyles led to a worldwide epidemic of obesity. But then luckily, the knowledge economy took off. In this economy, human brains have been highly active. So although the physical body was not as active as during the agricultural or industrial era, intense brain activity was still burning up plenty of calories. But today, in an emerging economy based on AI, not just the human body, even the human brain could be rendered less active than before. So, are humans at risk of facing both physical and intellectual obesity at the same time?

In the past, our obesity problem due to lack of physical activity was accentuated by the arrival of junk food. Similarly, the emerging inactivity of the brain has been supplemented by a tremendous increase in the time that humans, especially younger generations, are spending on online games and pornography. The video game industry was worth nearly $200 billion in 2021 in the US—more than its music, book publishing and sports businesses combined. A survey released by US security company Netskope reveals that consumption of pornographic content grew 600% in the first half of 2020 compared to the same period the previous year. This pandemic-induced behavioural trend looks set to continue.

One of the measures of human intelligence is called the Flynn Effect. It refers to the observed rise in standardized intelligence test scores over a span of time. This increase was found to be continuous and roughly linear from the early days of such intelligence testing to the mid-1990s across the world. But some recent studies show that the increase in the Flynn Effect in developed countries is no longer as fast as it was. A new study recently published in the journal Nature finds that since 1945, there has been a dramatic drop in the number of papers and patents that are likely to break with the past in ways that push science and technology in new directions.

This suggests increasing intellectual laziness among scientists and a tendency to seek incrementalism over intellectual leaps. Are the slowing down of the Flynn Effect and drop in the number of paradigm-shifting scientific papers signs that mental sloth is a reality we must contend with?

Such concerns seem to be unfounded. When IBM’s supercomputer Deep Blue defeated world chess champion Gary Kasparov, many had feared that the board game was doomed. There were those who said that as chess-playing computer softwares become popular, humans would drop out of the game. But what happened was the exact opposite. Earlier, those playing chess had to depend on a few rare books to learn the game’s best strategies. Today humans can perfect their skills playing against computers. With the easy availability of knowledge on chess games, many more people, even from rural parts of countries, have started playing chess. Many are even becoming grandmasters at much younger ages than before. This just goes to show that technology does not necessarily destroy human innovativeness, but could enhance it instead in significant ways.

With reports that Microsoft could invest a whopping $10 billion in AI technology, one could expect many more technological advancements in this field in the near future. As we saw in the world of chess, humans will probably find new ways to collaborate with these AI advances. This human-AI collaboration will likely be driven by new human behavioural trends.

Over the centuries, the time spent by humans on education has not changed much. Most human learning has occurred in educational institutions, before embarking on careers. This scenario is going to change dramatically. Tech innovations will force humans to upgrade themselves, so as to stay one step ahead of the technology that could replace them. So life-long learning will be the new norm across the educated world. Gone are also those days when a person will focus on only one area of learning. To make one relevant to ever-changing times, multi-disciplinary learning is what people will likely seek. The life-long acquisition of new knowledge will be the best antidote for any intellectual laziness.

Biju Dominic is chief evangelist, Fractal Analytics, and chairman, FinalMile Consulting.

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