My colleague Pat Scannell asked me the other day to assist in reviewing his manuscript: ‘The Great Irony of Technology’.
In this upcoming book, he mentioned an issue that really intrigued me — the “disruption of thought”.
He makes the point that the rapid acceleration of technology exceeds the ability of any one person or organisation to understand. The pace of the change is disrupting the very fabric of how humans think.
We often fail to pause and think about the barrage of information we receive, to fact check, make up our mind or just for a moment think about what we are confronted with before we react on social media, in emails and so on.
He even argues that this problem is in fact the biggest problem in the world, exceeding, for example, climate change and he mentions the following reasons for that:
- disruption of thought is the root cause for many of the growing social fault lines that are themselves very high social problems; and
- disruption of thought erodes our ability to recruit and collaborate at the scale needed to solve climate change and other existential problems.
We see some of this in the developments of algorithms. We know, for example, that the use of this can lead to gender and race bias. If you analyse this a bit further, then what is missing here in the human cognitive surroundings that in most cases can make the necessary adjustments.
Furthermore, it is near impossible to reconstruct how algorithms built those computer models. So who is in control? Furthermore, algorithms and big data lead to exponential numbers of variables, each expanding at exponential rates. Humans simply can’t fathom this.
If this continues uncontrolled, it will grow into artificial superintelligence. Of course, we can’t predict the future but it is highly likely that this is going to develop in ways we can’t even imagine.
The first level of automation was mechanical (factories, mines, agriculture). However, we are increasingly replacing functions that require cognitive processes. This could lead to a dumbing down as the people who would normally undertake such “thinking” processes are now barely operators of such processes.
We are seeing that more and more of these outcomes are now outpacing the capacities of human intelligence, human independence, and the use of creativity in our own brains. These three elements are what make humans different from robots and we do need to use these unique human attributes to manage these processes. Machines will never be able to take over those elements.
As these developments are going so fast, we have little room and time to manage them through policies, regulations, social discussions and so on. The developments are driven by human material demands and desires without the necessary checks and balances to guide these processes.
The fact is that technology improves most peoples’ lives, objectively, but ironically it leaves many people feeling worse off. It looks like the positive outcome of technology is not enough because of the social confusion it creates which can be captured in “the disruption of thought”.
It gets even scarier when we talk about quantum mechanics. We are using this technology and it delivers great outcomes, but we have no clue how this works. Many of the outcomes provide great benefits, for example, in analysing diseases and producing solutions. However, we don’t know how they came to those outcomes. Think about what happens when this technology will no doubt be developed further and further.
We are reaching a stage where technology will be able to “know more” than humans, without us being in control of that process.
So, what we are seeing here is a double whammy. We see that the disruption of thought is already a key root of some of our social and political problems. Next, we could see a development whereby technology will start outstripping humans as cognitive operators.
A serious concern is that many people have “catastrophe fatigue” – even before the pandemic – and don’t have the cognitive headspace to do the reading, thinking and other work to get their heads around these issues, much less collaborate at any effective scale.
As I have mentioned before, I don’t think that technology is the key to these serious problems, but it is our human resolve to address these problems. We are far too caught up in short-term gains and politics — what is required is a more fundamental long-term approach. So, the problems can be solved by us humans, but we should act now rather than wait for a crisis.
At the same time, I firmly believe that technology, when correctly managed, can assist us in staying in control.