Don’t let your brain become artificial

“Live in the moment”…oh wait, it’s gone

Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to travel to Costa Rica to study ecology and species diversity. I was working with a group of sixteen biology students, our professor, and our Costa Rican guide. Throughout the entire two week trip, we were continually advised to “live in the moment”. I heard this advice, telling myself that of course I would make the most of this incredible experience, soaking in as much of the natural history and culture as I possibly could. The other students thought the same, I’m sure, and on all of our guided hikes and tours everyone was eager to participate. However, when we got back to our hotel, everyone would grab their cell phone or tablet and settle down in the lobby, struggling to make use of the very weak Wi-Fi signals provided by our hotel.

“To be everywhere is to be nowhere”

The roman philosopher, Seneca, put it best when he stated that “to be everywhere is to be nowhere’. Even in one of the most breathtaking and biologically diverse places on the planet, we were ruled by our need to “stay connected”. The photos of rainforest wildlife we took during the day meant nothing if we could not retreat to our hotels in the evening and send them to everyone on our contact lists. Drama with friends from home followed me to Costa Rica through group chats on Facebook and aggressive tweets on Twitter. I often found myself “googling” information about tropical ecosystems, despite the fact that the real deal was right in front of me to observe.

To my disappointment, I was certainly not living in the moment in Costa Rica. When I should have been open to my surroundings and learning new things, I was lost in a sea of distractions and preoccupations that the Internet allowed me to bring on my trip. These distractions prevented me from using the power of my mind to its full potential, an issue that haunts all of us living in the age of technology.

The evolution of thought and communication

There was a time when language did not exist. Up until speech emerged 100,000 years ago, people communicated through hand gestures and grunts. Then came cave paintings and carvings, followed by speech, writing, telecommunication, and finally the internet!

With each successive change there were concerns that the human mind would change or suffer. Writing was a big one. Many people, including Socrates, believed that written word would become a substitute for knowledge held in our brains, ultimately making human beings less intelligent. He thought that having access to words and information on paper could offer temporary intelligence, making people seem knowledgeable when they didn’t truly retain what they were reading. In reality, writing enhanced the overall knowledge of humans, allowing for spreading and sharing of ideas and information that actually stimulated deeper thinking.

The Internet has the answer, so I don’t have to

What the Internet is doing to us is very different. Don’t get me wrong, I think that the internet is a magnificent tool, giving us access to a wealth of information right at our fingertips. But this instant access is just too easy to take advantage of. People use the Internet for everything. Watching a movie and can’t recall that actor’s name? IMDb it. Reading a paper and not quite sure what a word means? Dictionary.com. Doing your homework and can’t figure out a question? Chances are someone else has asked the same question on wiki.answers.com. The instant gratification that the Internet and Google offer is almost irresistible, and we would like to think that it makes us smarter to have so much information at our disposal. However, how many of the meaningless questions we have asked on Google do we actually recall the answer to? If I’m any representation of the human population, the answer is not many!

Should we fear the future?

Human society has become too reliant on technology to help us understand the world that surrounds us, essentially trading human intelligence for artificial intelligence. The Internet may keep our minds eager for information, but it is in a reckless and distracted manner that is not compatible with deeper learning or creativity. Even when we try to engage in relaxing activities like reading or enjoying nature, more often than not our mind is racing with other scattered thoughts that all lead us back to the Internet.

If we cannot concentrate long enough to relax, surely we will not be able to concentrate on spending time connecting with family and friends or completing important work, or actually learning anything at all! Slowly but surely, the innovative human mind is becoming mechanical. And if all of our brains are subject to this mechanical overtaking, who will be left to contribute novel ideas to the Internet we are coming to rely on? Human beings must fight to regain the serenity and ingenuity of our minds, or else artificial intelligence will be all we have left.

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