Intelligence is not Artificial

Why the Singularity is not Coming any Time Soon And Other Meditations on the Post-Human Condition and the Future of Intelligence

by piero scaruffi
Cognitive Science and Artificial Intelligence | Bibliography and book reviews | My book on consciousness | Contact/feedback/email

(These are excerpts from my book "Intelligence is not Artificial")

Intermezzo: The Attention Span

This topic has more to do with modern life than with machines, but it is related to the idea of an "intelligence implosion".

I worry that the chronic scarcity of time in our age is pushing too many decision makers to take decisions having heard only very superficial arguments. The "elevator pitch" has become common even in academia. A meeting that lasts more than 30 minutes is a rarity (in fact, a luxury from the point of view of the most powerful, and therefore busiest, executives). You can't get anybody's attention for more than 20 minutes, but some issues cannot be fully understood in 20 minutes; and some great scientists are not as good at rhetorical speech as they are at their science, which means that they may lose a 20-minute argument even if they are 100% right. Too many discussions are downgraded because they take place by texting on so-called smartphones, whose tiny keyboards discourage elaborate messages. The ultimate reason that we have fewer and fewer investigative reporters in news organizations is the same, i.e. the reduced attention span of the readers/viewers, with the result that the reliability of news media is constantly declining. Twitter's 140-character posts have been emblematic of the shrinking attention span.

(Trivia: Twitter introduced the limitation of 140 characters on human intelligence in the same year, 2006, that deep learning increased the intelligence of machines).

I am not afraid that the human race might lose control of its machines as much as i am afraid that the human race will self-destruct because of the limitations of the "elevator pitch" and of the "tweet"; because of the chronic inability of decision makers, as well as of the general public, to fully understand an issue.

It has become impossible to properly organize events because the participants, accustomed to tweets and texting, will only read the first few lines of a lengthy email. Multiply this concept a few billion times in order to adapt it to the dimension of humanity's major problems, and you should understand why the last of my concerns is that machines may become too intelligent and the first of my concerns is that human interactions might become too dumb. Elon Musk (at MIT's AeroAstro 100 conference in October 2014) and others are worried that machines may get so smart that they will start building smarter machines; instead, i am worried that people's attention span is becoming so short that it will soon be impossible to explain the consequences of a short attention span. I don't see an acceleration in machine intelligence, but i do see a deceleration in human attention if not in human intelligence in general.

To summarize, there are three ways that we can produce "dumber" humans. All three are related to technology but in opposite ways.

Firstly, there is the simple fact that a new technology makes some skills irrelevant, and those skills may be lost within one generation. Pessimists argue that little by little we become less human. Optimists claim that the same technology enables new skills to develop. I can personally attest that both camps are right: the computer and email have turned me into a highly-productive multi-tasking cyborg, and at the same time they have greatly reduced my skills in writing polite and touching letters to friends and relatives (with, alas, parallel effects on the quality of my poetry). The pessimists think that the gains do not offset the losses (the "dumbization"), especially when it comes to losing basic survival skills.

Secondly, the rules and regulations that society introduces for the purpose of making us safer and more efficient end up making us think less and less, i.e. behave more and more like (non-intelligent) machines.

Thirdly, the frantic lives of overworked individuals have greatly reduced their attention span, which may result in a chronic inability to engage in serious discussions, i.e. in a more and more superficial concept of "intelligence", i.e. in the limited cognitive experience of lower forms of life.

Back to the Table of Contents

Purchase "Intelligence is not Artificial"
Back to Cognitive Science | My book on consciousness | My reviews of books | Contact