Are We Artificially Intelligent?

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Sometimes, but not often enough, you hear somebody mention something about their work that is, to them, routine, just part of the world in which they live. But outside of their world, that statement seems amazing, fantastic, and a glimpse of something massive.

I just had that happen to me when I read this interview on TheAtlantic.com by James Fallows, talking with Michael Jones – Google’s mapping guru (or more accurately, one of their gurus).  Jones was describing how having on-demand maps with near-instant access changes human behavior. And then he slips this in:

This kind of extra-smartness is coming to people. Effectively, people are about 20 IQ points smarter now because of Google Search and Maps. They don’t give Google credit for it, which is fine; they think they’re smarter, because they can rely on these tools. It’s one reason they get so upset if the tools are inaccurate or let them down. They feel like a fifth of their brain has been taken out.

I have no idea where this statistic comes from — I’d love to know how Google has tested this, but I don’t doubt for a second that they have, so let’s just assume that it’s true. It’s the kind of thing that just makes the mind reel when you start to think about it. Basically, we now live in a world where we are, by default, 15-20% smarter than our parents, just because of Google (or, to put less of a brand stamp on it, because of immediate access to information).

In this light, I wonder if we’ve truly grasped how different the Internet is than other, previous, technological tools. I’ve been thinking a lot, recently, about Freeman Dyson’sriff on scientific revolutions and tools — he talks about X rays and radio telescopes and particle accelerators as the real stuff of revolutions, rather than outright ideas (the framework Thomas Kuhn proposed in 1962). I’ve considered Dyson’s argument persuasive but somewhat disappointing, in the sense that tools seem, well, less exciting than ideas. Tools seem prosaic and utilitarian, while ideas are portentous and vast. Tools seemed useful for improving productivity, say, or creating businesses, but they seem to stop short of wholesale human advancement.

But I think I’ve been selling Dyson short (which is to say, of course I have). Sure, some tools are incremental — but the big ones are exponential. They not only change how we do stuff, they can change the substance of who we are. That, I gather, is what Google’s quants have calculated with this 20+ IQ points metric. Having on-demand information isn’t just useful. It fundamentally changes how we think. It is human enhancement, without the surgery or the needle. In other words, we have already stepped into the world of artificial intelligence. Only it’s not some robot that we are dealing with; some version of IBM’s Watson. It’s us: We are the ones who have become artificially intelligent.

There are all sorts of issues that this creates: As Jones mentions, what happens when we become unplugged, and lose one-fifth of our brains? And what happens when that 20+ points becomes 50, or 70 — how will we make sure that everyone has access and understanding of these tools?

I should note that Nick Carr anticipated some of this worry with his 2008 piece on “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” And I should also note that my hero Kevin Kelly was exactly right in his riff on Carr’s piece when he guessed that Google added 20 points to our IQ. As Kevin wrote: “I think that even if the penalty is that you lose 20 points of your natural IQ when you get off Google AI, most of us will choose to keep the 40 IQ points we gain by jacking in all the time.”

I think Kevin is spot-on (and as usual, five years ahead of the curve). But we should all be aware that this augmentation has happened. We have already stepped way into the future, without even noticing it, or fathoming what’s happened. The more we do notice it, and wrestle with the implications, the better off we’ll be.