A.I. and the Decline of Human Intelligence

When my daughter Alex was in third grade she had the reigning Marin County (California) Teacher of Year. Her name escapes me (I’ll blame it on the chemo brain). The parents of all the kids in this Tiburon classroom were beside themselves with praise for her. Me … not so much. A big one thing I had a problem with was she encouraged the students to use calculators in her class. Her reason was that it would be good practice for real life – where no one did math long hand anymore. Well, I do.

Now I still use a calculator, but daily I make every effort to do math problems in my head. Percentages, grocery bill estimates, gas mileage … anything and everything. it’s something I’ve always done and probably always will. It’s cerebral exercise, and it’s something I’ve encouraged my daughter to do also. On road trips as a grade-schooler, she’d have to look at the mileage, take in account our speed, and determine when we’d get to the next stop. I don’t know if she liked it … but she did it anyway.

Now I don’t mean to sound like a Luddite. On the contrary, I self-taught myself how to program in college on FORTRAN 77 on my college’s IBM 360/370 (how many of you remember FORTRAN or a 360/370). I’d sneak in to the computer center at night and drop off my boxes of punch cards. I wasn’t so bright that I used a terminal like the other nocturnal geeks in training though. I used punch cards … and for a many months carried around my three boxes of 1400 cards.

I bought my first Mac in 1985 and I was transferring data online before there was an online. My first email address was at the Well in the San Francisco. In fact I gave Well email addresses for Christmas presents. Alexandria was raised on a Mac, and instead of going to college when she graduated high school … she went to Apple.

That said, I didn’t like the idea of supplanting the exercise of the brain for the exercise the fingers hitting the calculator buttons. And the excuse: “they’ll need to learn how to use a calculator in real life when they’re older” is lame. What they’ll need to learn is how to use their brain. And considering who this country elected as president – we’re in short supply of those that either can or will.

Now I’m not blaming calculators and their use in grade school for the clown in the White House and utter disintegration of the democracy before our very eyes … but then maybe I should. Maybe we should look it as a symptom … a touchstone of sorts, emblematic of how we view intellectual development in this country. I get the whole “recognizing the value of tools” thing. But unless the foundation is built for which the tools are to be used (and hopefully complement) – we’re building a skyscraper or citizens’ equivalent of it – on a landfill.

During that time Alex was in grade school, I ran a recruiting firm that specialized in electronic prepress. Over the fifteen years I was a headhunter, I saw the prepress industry evolve from journeymen craftsmen working on stripping tables manually composing high-end film and color etching dot-by-dot … to everything being done via electronic workstations (Photoshop for example). Many of my candidates made the transition and some didn’t. Those who did, those who had the conventional experience and knew how everything fit together manually, were worth much more than candidates who came to me with only electronic background. The latter didn’t have the fundamentals and didn’t know the reasons the code behind the screen was designed to do what it did. Working every day with these people is what flamed my visceral reaction to Alex’s 3rd Grade teacher. Without doing it long-hand or better yet in your head … the numbers on the calculator are just that – numbers. They don’t have history and context.

The mind is like a muscle. The more we think and figure things out … the more we’ll be able to figure other things out. Even something as mundane as a grocery bill guess is like walking a cerebral mile. Every bit counts. Shouldn’t we be looking for opportunities to think more – not less? Just because we can automate and mentally farm something out … should we?

Unintended Consequences

This brings me to A.I. – artificial intelligence. In my Twitter stream, my curated portal to the world, there is no single topic at present that takes up more characters than A.I. And if it’s not A.I., it’s what feeds it – big data (I hate that term). Google has even created an A.I. app that can make a haircut appointment for you – and sound like a human doing it. Great … no not great. Do we really need our computer to set up a haircut appointment for us? What happened to the opportunity to communicate with someone? No one can tell me they’re so busy that they can’t spend two minutes to make a phone call and engage with a fellow human. And if they are … they shouldn’t be.

This is insane – even while writing this, I’m getting bombarded by more A.I. obsession. Teaching A.I. in grade school just popped into my stream. We’re going headlong into STEM at the expense of everything else (different topic for a different day). Where are the visualists, the artists and the social scientists who will help us communicate with each other and nurture our humanity rather than perfecting the science of avoidance. Never before in my sixty years on this earth have we needed more engagement.

It’s like we’ve just given up on the concept human-to-human interaction. I’m wondering if the ultimate goal of all this is just machine-to-machine engagement. Us humans, at least the majority of us, will sit on the sidelines of life waiting for yet another algorithm to tell us what we’re suppose to be doing and what we’re suppose to be feeling. Those creating the algorithms will run the game — because … well, most of us don’t know any better and can’t do anything about it.

Silicon Valley and all its other “silicon” siblings seem to have this competition for who metaphorically has the biggest one. “What can we have the computer do that will be cooler than the other guys (and it’s always guys) down the street are doing?” Driverless cars are the big thing; and I’m sure there will be a time in the not so distance future where knowing how to drive will be a long-lost art. Even with the prevalence of automatic transmissions, operating a manual transmission is one of these arts. Alex, who can, is always called upon to help when there’s moving to be done. It’s not because of her sinewy 110 pound physique – but rather her ability to drive a manual truck. Driving a manual transmission is more than just not shifting. It’s knowing when to shift – and that means thinking … again, like a walking a cerebral mile.

I’m sorry if I’m coming off like Luddite again – and I’m not against A.I. or technology. In fact my Community 3.0 project uses A.I. and database marketing to elevate the health and well-being of our communities by bringing people together. But we can’t let advanced human-like technology displace our own human functions in the process.

“Nothing pains some people more than having to think.” – Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

In the future, King’s quote will become even more applicable if we continue on our current path. Our epidemic of physical obesity will be replaced by cerebral obesity as our brains turn to mush from lack of use. The exact thing we need to train our minds for, more complex thinking – is what we are weaning ourselves of. The daily task of navigating our car has been supplanted by GPS. The days of “fixing things” are long gone and with it are the critical thinking skills we need for the remaining jobs not taken by the artificial intelligence we’re suppose to be embracing. Quite the paradox.

I recently read an article about physicians second guessing themselves and their intuition honed from years of experience because they instead default to data interpretation. Many of my radiologists fiends on Twitter are struggling with the spectre looming in the future that will push their careers to be among the first casualties of A.I. in healthcare. Will A.I.-driven diagnostics improve outcomes? The data says it would – but will it really? I suppose if it replaces physicians who aren’t using their minds to their fullest, it may. But what if these same physicians, didn’t default to technology – but instead used technology more as a complimentary tool, with their minds being the primary processor. But if they don’t continue to think and use their stores of experiences – they won’t run (or even walk) those cerebral miles needed to keep in shape. All too often the EHR software at your healthcare provider operates as  malignant shadow government. The interface design of Epic and its competitors covertly dictate our relationships with our doctors, PAs and nurses. If there isn’t a field for it, it doesn’t matter – or worse, doesn’t exist. Technology, and especially artificial intelligence systems are only as good as the algorithms that drive them and interfaces that allow one to interact with them.

The proponents of A.I., or should I say the obsessionists, say that it frees up our minds from mundane activities in order to pursue cerebral deep dives – deep dives that will result in societal fixes that will save our imperiled world. These deep dives don’t just come when called though. There’s no magic bag of pixie dust that when sprinkled, life-saving ideas will fly out of our eyes like butterflies. More often nothing comes out. When we over-rely on technology, we haven’t trained of brain to do much of anything – let alone save the world. But to question the pious of A.I. is akin to blasphemy. Ironically IBM just announced significant layoffs of 50 to 70% in their Watson Healthcare division. Its Watson division was supposed to bring artificial intelligence to markets such as healthcare, although it ended up attracting the wrong sort of headlines when some projects faltered, and financial analysts described it as a money pit.

A Collective Call to Action

Steve Jobs was once asked about creativity and how one becomes creative. His response was epic:

Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things. And the reason they were able to do that was that they had more experiences and they have thought more about their experiences than other people.

They had more experiences and then they thought about those experiences more. The operative word was “thought.” We need to not sacrifice our minds for technological progress. And I rather doubt that’s the intent of those who drive the artificial intelligence bus. But rather if it’s intended or not – it could very well be one of those dreaded unintended consequences; the ones who no one thinks about in the euphoria of the moment. Well I’m thinking about it … and we all should.

Being aware is the best counterbalance. We shouldn’t necessarily try to curb the innovation benefits of A.I. – not at all. We just must be aware of the price that may be paid if we ride along never taking off our rose-colored glasses. The old adage “use it or lose it” is especially applicable here. We all need to make conscious efforts to run (or at least walk) that extra cerebral mile. We need to trust our gut once in while. Dust off that map book and shut off the GPS for your next trip. A wrong turn won’t be the end of you. Don’t just default to technology. Be present and engage with the world around you. As Steve Jobs said; “have experiences and think about them.”

And don’t just have experiences: get out of your comfort zone.  Humans are creatures of habit.  We tend to do the same things, associate with same types of people and be influenced by the same sources as we always have. If you’re a doctor, hang with a plumber. If you’re white, talk to a black person. Take the bus sometime (no – people on buses don’t bite). If you live on the west side, have dinner on the east side. And most of all if you’re old (yes Boomers you are old) … get some insight from someone young – someone that’s not your own kid. Our brains are nothing more than synaptic connections that are built and strengthened through habitual activity and thought.

While we can all make efforts personally – we also have to look at how we can leverage these efforts. Make sure our kids’ schools aren’t over-relying on technological crutches. We must stress critical thinking and basic problem solving  – and start early. Kindergarten isn’t for obsessing over reading. It’s about play and learning dispute resolution in the sandbox and on the playground.

Success does not mean looking to past, nor does it mean blindly ignoring it. Technology is a tool, and tools are meant to compliment. It’s our responsibility to evolve along with the tools we create … or the compliment will end up replacing us. We need civic and social solutions that take into account the unintended consequences. Societal norms need to be established. What if engagement and thought was how a community measured itself, not obtuse economic activity too often over-emphasized by the naiveté of the echo chamber too often reinforced by technology and social media. Rather than focusing wholly on jobs for “hard-working folk,” we create paths for “hard thinking” people. Too often, in efforts to include everyone, we lower the bar. We look for inclusion in the current state – not at potential. While hard work is fine, hard thinking provides the future – individually and collectively for all of us as a community.

Think about it.


If you’re interested in moving on from the status quo and help us build based on the true power of the minds of those in our communities – please check out Community 3.0; my vision of an evolved society where self-efficacy and well-being … and yes, thinking, is priority. Or even better email me at clayforsberg@gmail.com and we can set up time to have a conversation – a real one.


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