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Sunday, April 11, 2021 | 01:40 am
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Smartphones Made Us Dumber, but Good AI Technology Can Fix That

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Smartphones Made Us Dumber, but Good AI Technology Can Fix That

There’s a pervasive concern today that people are becoming obsolete. The cause and the culprit? Technology.

What is technology really doing to our minds, lives, and livelihoods? For instance, many fret about a jobless future, screen addiction, and humans being replaced by robots and algorithms.

So, are humans expendable? Is technology exposing human limitations while diminishing valuable faculties like cognitive reasoning and creativity?

Our personal technologies do seem to be making us dumber. The smartphone – still barely a decade old – allows us to confidently go to a place that was once deemed science fiction. We can connect with a loved one in a far corner of the earth over FaceTime, order a pizza from the comfort of our home, and summon a taxi – all at the same time if we wish.

In sum, we might all feel like James Bond. But these superpowers have come at a cost because of how we have approached them so far.

Smartphones, weak minds

Phones shape our thoughts even when we’re not using them. As the brain grows dependent on technology, the intellect becomes weaker.

One study found that when phones beep in the middle of a challenging task, people’s focus wavers and their work gets sloppier – whether they check the phone or not.
Another study showed that when people hear their phone ring but are unable to answer, their blood pressure rises, pulse quickens, and problem-solving skills decline.
A third study found that the mere presence of a smartphone “reduces available cognitive capacity”.

The very same smartphones that were supposed to give us an unprecedented degree of power have taken over our brains, robbing us of our cognitive edge.

Let’s do AI differently from how we did phones
The growth in computing power, reduced data-storage costs and increased ability to measure activities with data are driving exponential growth in the use of Artificial Intelligence (AI).

AI is making decisions that are affecting our lives whether we like it or not. AI applications shape our environment by deciding what we see and do. From social media feeds to the news and movies we tune into, we are being taken down an algorithmic path.

A whole host of jobs, particularly those that involve repetition or rapid calculation, will become automated. Technology can perform better repetitive tasks and rapid calculations than humans in areas as diverse as processing loan applications, trading stocks, making salads, and driving trains.

At the same time, technology has created jobs that didn’t even exist a year ago: the influencer marketer, the TikTok content creator, the drone operator, and the Instacart delivery associate among them.

Investment capital is today learning how to replace human capital with technology. The current tax system also creates an incentive to accelerate this trend. A $100 investment in an employee comes with $30 in associated tax, while a similar investment in technology results in $3 in tax.

Enabling and empowering humans: it is possible to do both

One promising development has been the emergence of “augmented intelligence”; not yet a household term like AI, it is however gaining acceptance as one approach to integrating people and technology harmoniously.

Augmented Intelligence is not so much new technology as a way of taming and harnessing AI, and freeing up bandwidth for human creativity and innovation. Augmented Intelligence (humans plus technology) will help design and redesign jobs to improve employee happiness, efficiency, and safety.

One of Britannica’s visions is to transform learning inside and outside classrooms by inspiring curiosity and instilling the joy of learning. Teachers – who are key enablers in realizing this vision – spend a significant amount of time preparing for class, asserting control, and marking assignments. While these activities are necessary, they don’t do enough to unleash student potential.

Let’s assume it takes five minutes for a teacher to mark one assignment, and there are 20 kids in his class; that’s one hour 40 minutes of work. But what if technology could not only do the marking but also provide rich insights?

Take this particular case: you and I take the same quiz of 10 questions – you get all 10 answers right, and I do too. Just based on that data, the two of us are comparable. What if you answered those 10 questions in five minutes, and I took 20 minutes? That data suggests you understand the concepts better than I do.

Or what if I got nine questions right in eight minutes, but then spent 12 minutes on just one of them? It’s worthwhile for the teacher to know that I struggled so much with one of the questions.

With rich insights such as these – which could have only been garnered via technology – teachers will be able to adopt an outcome-oriented, personalized approach to teaching. Students will benefit from more individualized attention regarding their learning and wellness; the most exciting and fulfilling parts of a teacher’s job.

Augmented Intelligence is currently being applied to medicine, pharmacology, and sales, among other fields. In several areas, it is expected to create more jobs than it will eliminate.

If we control it well, technology can make our lives easier by building convenience and amplifying our cognitive capabilities. Medical procedures will become less invasive; utilities in our homes will genuflect to our voice commands or read into our unstated preferences, and our cars will navigate all by themselves.

AI holds the key to a better future for humankind because it aims to develop systems that make humans better, not obsolete.

That said, it will take concerted efforts on many levels to achieve this goal. These include changes in individual attitudes, business planning, sensible public policies, and candid public discourse. Let’s foster a human-centric technology mindset and rally organizations to keep people in the driver’s seat and not lose our human edge.

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