Welcome to the Cognitive Age

Image by Javier Rodriguez from Pixabay

Ever since we fumbled our way down out of the trees, humans have been making tools. From stones anf flints to the bronze axe, iron and steel, to steam engines, automobiles and aeroplanes. We’ve called them an “age” to describe the length of time they were used. The Stone Age, Bronze Age, Iron age and so on.

All of these tools augmented our physical abilities. From hunting and gathering to foraging to weapons of war. Since the 1940’s we’ve been moving into the Cognitive Age, arguably with the first digital computer, the ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer) developed by IBM (who had a questionable history at that time.)

ENIAC Image: Courtesy University of Pennsylvania

For a brief spell, some humans made great effort to turn other humans into automatons in the first industrial age. This is when unions started and were useful. Today, unions are stuck in that era and are failing the knowledge sector terribly. Social media companies have hundreds of thousands of humans contracted by second party companies to moderate posts. Many are left traumatized and work in demoralizing conditions. It is the dark underbelly of the social media industry.

Few technologies are stand alone. Fire, hammer, axe, saw, bow. No digital technologies are stand alone. They are combinations of other existing technologies. We might define a technology as that which harnesses a phenomenon. Digital technologies often harness several phenomenons. A smartphone brings together electronics with glass, metals, signals (GPS, WiFi etc.) that come from a series of other technologies. So it is with any computer today.

As we advanced our knowledge of digital tools, which are technologies that can convert analog into ones and zeroes, we combined technologies in ever more innovative ways. Until eventually, we began to augment our cognitive abilities. The most powerful being Artificial Intelligence (AI) and perhaps in the biotech world, CRISPR for gene decoding and analysis. Both are technologies that may well have the most profound impact on humanity since we harnessed fire. They are both cognitive technologies. Although CRISPR will impact our physiology the most, it may also help enhance our brains cognitive abilities.

Just think, eventually we may use genetic design tools and Brain Computer Interface (BCI) technology to boost our brain’s processing capabilities and give us more RAM. While then offloading storage to computers.

Digital technologies augment our cognitive abilities. Many of us already use AI in our everyday lives through the use of voice assistants such as Siri, Alexa and Hey Google (I really think Google should give its AI a name, it is more relatable to humans that way.) Ai is helping in health care with disease diagnosis and may soon play a role in mental health as well. To some small degree, it already is. Ai will likely augment knowledge jobs like insurance, law and healthcare and perhaps some trades such as electrical and plumbing. Already, AR glasses are helping a number of professions to do their jobs.

When we use social media apps and make a post, we are projecting them into time. Our thoughts go out into the world and anyone anywhere with the app and internet connectivity can participate. An entire conversation can happen without us until we come back to it. This is the temporal aspect of cognitive augmentation.

Autonomous vehicles and aeroplanes, robots, are all offloading some degree of cognitive function. Algorithms drive stock markets with trading faster than ever before. So fast in fact, that some exchanges put in special rules to govern their use. Humans could never trade at such speed and complexity.

As developing nations progress, they too will have ever increasing numbers of knowledge workers and they may be able to leap frog some developing nations in how they augment their knowledge workers. Kenya was able to roll our a digital money system because they leap frogged landlines for cellular.

While it may all seem utopian and perfect, we do have to remember and manage for issues such as racial and gender bias, a known issue in AI tools and systems. We may have to be concerned with massive job losses as well. Business models will change somewhat, but not to the degree some anticipate.

As surely as humans adopted and adapted technologies to improve our physical being and survival in the real world, so we will adopt technologies that augment our cognitive aspects of life. In fact, as we deal with climate change and an increasingly complex world, cognitive augmentation will be critical to our species survival.

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