Of Google Glasses and Calculators: your brain on intelligence augmentation

There has been a lot of chatter in the press recently about intelligence augmentation, which can mean a variety of things but always gets instantiated for me mostly clear in the “software” of William Gibson’s Neuromancer.  The basic idea is that “always on” forms of computing (like Google Glasses) will fill in the gaps of intelligence by either proactively or retroactively providing information.

Put another way: you’re sitting at dinner with me, we start talking about The Beatles but can’t remember when they were formed, Google Glasses says “1960, asshole” and presto…our intelligence was augmented.

I’ve raised issues about Google Glasses before, but it is a little harder to know in advance the effect of this kind of change.  For example, we know that resolving ambiguity tends to make us happy – our brain gives us a little extra love when we solve a puzzle or see the pattern in something that seemed random.  But we don’t know what happens if someone gives us the answer: does that provide the same rush of pleasure?  Does Google Glasses filling in The Beatles answer count for as much as noodling on it for a few minutes and figuring it out ourselves?

It may not matter in the sense that, like cell phones, the technology will almost certainly find widespread adoption.  But knowing in advance the potential psychological implications of intelligence augmentation may prove key in helping with a smooth transition.

The calculator gives us a good example from history.  I remember even up until high school the degree to which some teachers felt like using a calculator was intellectually lazy, and banned or discouraged them.  More recently, however, most the math teachers I know don’t give calculator use a second thought; the emphasis is on the concepts and application of math, not its mechanics.

As Howard Rheingold and others have pointed out, technology often evolves to help us become smarter as a mass humanity (the printing press, for example).  What is different about Google Glasses is that we are now moving into areas of technology that interact with brain processes that are much more core to our own human evolution: information recall, perception, and choice.  Whereas the printing press and calculator have no doubt made us able to do more, they did not change the fundamentals of how we think, just what we do with our thinking time.

In the end, this may just be me wanting to start a lab at the intersection of psychology and technology to start experimenting with the future of these things.  But the next time you can’t remember something, think about what it would be like if you just instantly “knew” – you never had the frustration or the process of finding out.  Net good?  Net bad?  Net different?

2 thoughts on “Of Google Glasses and Calculators: your brain on intelligence augmentation”

  1. matt – you’ve raised a very good point that few want to address or answer. in today’s western culture we accept technological evolution and our use of it with very little consideration for how it impacts our behavior, and now, our perception/choice/thinking. so while i take time to ponder your points more, i wonder if we’re aware of how many neuroscientists and behaviorists are employed by google and tech-creating companies.

    be well, jr @cloudspark

  2. There are a few of us (while I didn’t work at Bing when I wrote this, I do now), but not nearly as many as I think there should be. One interesting point that came up recently: GG doesn’t have to go through any kind of health review from the government, despite the potentially serious mental implications. And if they study it and find out there is a problem on their own, their obligated to release that to the public. So our system encourages them not to study this problem in any depth.

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