Thursday, April 29, 2010

Chips of Knowledge

Tom can finally be confident. Although he was unfortunate to have not attended college, he could now confidently partake in pompous, pseudo-intellectual talk that his colleagues often engaged in. He left his colleagues open-mouthed and in disbelief at how he gained so much knowledge within a matter of few weeks. Tom was gloating, happy that he finally got his ego-boost. His new implant was working miracles. He had a high-speed wireless chip that connected to the world-wide web and a powerful in-built encyclopaedia. Due to the limitless memory and knowledge space, Tom could choose to register new information effortlessly and could retrieve relevant information using basic keywords. A "Google" inside his brain. With this immense ability, Tom stopped caring what he registered and what he retrieved, as long as he could spew out the information to impress others to get his way through life. But he didn't care that he wasn't learning or acquiring knowledge in true spirit, all that he could think of was how omniscient he had become with no effort. (Original Source: The Pig That Wants To Be Eaten, by Julian Baggini)

I'm no new prophetess to argue that wisdom is different from knowledge. Knowledge talks, wisdom listens. Clearly Tom is only keen on talking and spilling out facts. Knowledge that isn't realized or experienced is vapid. Knowledge that doesn't help the individual grow from within, will soon become stale. But this scenario is not so far-fetched. It's quite plausible that within the next two generations, chips of such kind will surface. Schools and educational institutions will dwindle, given the already proliferating ideas on e-education, combined with the release of wireless chips that help one gain a limitless library of information all within one's head. Imagine knowledge chips being upgraded in toddlers as they develop, instead of school classes they progress to. What measure would be used to determine when a toddler's chip should be upgraded to newer versions? Does it matter at all? Or would everyone be given a unanimous chip of equal capabilities? Would that finally spell the meaning of being fair and equal, promising everyone equal opportunities for survival? Can someone be a good doctor just by consulting such a chip? Who decides what "knowledge" goes in the chip, and that all the information is validated and true? Would everyone be equally knowledgeable and smart? So many questions if we progress to such a realm. Such a chip cannot teach us how to apply knowledge, and when to apply which aspect appropriately. Intelligence still remains a slippery stone for scientists to hold and comprehend completely. But it sure is disconcerting if we are to enter an age wherein intelligence is confused with what people like Tom are capable of. Or with the optimism of AI scientists, maybe the chips would teach one to be "intelligent". But again, intelligence surely doesn't guarantee wisdom?

To a certain extent I appreciate the idea of technology augmenting the capabilities of the human brain, helping it overcome its limitations of memory and retrieval. But how different is a chip in the brain that helps us google, versus a hand-held device which helps us do the same thing today, with just a few clicks (or "touches"). We call it a "cognitive artifact" that helps with distributed cognition. In my field, we see technology as pieces of our mind, externalized, augmented and offloaded to be portable. So is this blog, that externalizes most of my thoughts. Haven't we then already progressed to Tom's state? We have already stepped into that smart age, although the mind is still physically disconnected from the device.

The fact that I know so many "exotic" recipes today, that my mom feels she can no longer suggest recipes to me, doesn't mean I'm smarter or more capable, but simply means I'm guided step by step through videos, pictures and precise measurements on how to make Tiramisu and souffles, when my mom had to improvise on what her grandmom taught her. Makes me wonder who the true "smart" one is. This age is designed to enable anyone to do almost anything. Despite churning out novel goodies, I still don't have the basic grasp or intuition of which spices go together with which ingredients, that my mom probably gained quite early on. She wasn't being a robot carrying out steps, she made mistakes, learned, realized her knowledge, experienced it and improvised. She had stashes of strategies and tips up her sleeves, all of which I can only google for today. I believe that this applies to even aspects that don't necessarily have an immediate, tangible practical component to them. A theory cannot be understood by merely reading or hearing about it. A book cannot be appreciated by reading its synopsis, reviews and popular quotes. Without sufficient independent thought processes applied, every iota of information just remains "raw". At a very basic neuro-scientific level, the mind cannot form any connections to new information if it is not processed. Rare are those who will persevere to gain wisdom even if knowledge is available at their finger-tips or neuron-tips.

The information loaded age needs to ensure a balance such that the meaning and import of wisdom and intelligence are not lost forever from the human race.


Leena said...

so true. whenever i have a question for someone, instead of them trying to answer it, they'll whip our their blackberry or iphone and look it up on google. i know about art and poetry because it is my passion. i can talk about it with emotion and true heart. someone else could simply look up e.e.cummings and recite a poem, but they could never feel the way i do about it. or look at a Degas and see dancers, but they could never appreciate the gentle strokes and the blend of the colors like a true lover does. interesting little piece you've written.

SecondSight said...

I tend to not worry about such dire situations as an implanted chip equalizing all of humanity.. Even now, in the subset of people that use the internet, there are some that are much better at gleaning the correct information, and others that will insist on sharing rumor-mongering forwards. And going back to the basis of the cell- with the same DNA code, two individuals can end up being drastically different from one another. Human nature and consciousness have a way of shining through, regardless of the ways we try to equalize disparity.