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Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Rise of the machines, ascent of the spirit

In the original Matrix movie (that’s the one that was watchable, in case you have forgotten) there is a scene where Neo is hooked up to a computer, and is learning all the martial arts moves by downloading them into his brain. He is actually asleep at the time, and the fellow watching him remarks that this is incredible because nobody has ever been so fast.

A fascinating scene, it makes for an interesting dilemma. What will it be like in the future when we can hook ourselves up to computer databases and just download information into our brains? Then we will be super intelligent. It will make the humans of bygone eras look like cognitive Neanderthals by comparison.

The scenario reminds us of certain arguments regarding artificial intelligence. Computers can already store and organise masses of data, and they can process it much faster than human beings. The human/computer memory differential becomes vaster with every passing year. Mores law states that computing power doubles every  two years or so. Computers will soon have infinitely more memory - and processing speed  - than any human being could possible dream of. We will be dumb as donkeys by comparison. And your tiny little mind, which can’t even remember where you put the car keys, will be little more than a source of amusement to the vast computers than will soon run this planet, if not cosmos.

Or maybe not.

Let’s look at just two key assumptions of this argument.

1)      Processing information faster makes you more intelligent.
2)      Having access to more data makes you smarter.

As it turns out, neither is perfectly true. It has already been demonstrated in intelligence testing that superior processing speed does not necessarily lead to a higher IQ. And this is not even touching the question of the cultural foundations of the concept of IQ. If having more data was the key to intelligence, quiz champions would be running the world.

As for having greater capacity for data storage and retrieval, to put this one to rest, let us turn to a fascinating case from history. It involves a remarkable Russian man, known only as S. in the literature. S. was a truly remarkable human being. If any man ever deserved the title of  “human data machine”, it was he. S.’ remarkable talents were discovered when, while working as a reporter in his twenties, he was chastised by his boss for not taking notes in a staff meeting. S. then shocked his boss by immediately repeating every single thing that has been stated in the meeting. S. later became the subject of intensive study by amazed psychologists, for he could remember almost every detail of every thing he had ever seen or heard. There seemed to be almost no limit to his memory storage capacity. He could remember tables of random digits that included hundreds of numbers, and then could recite them backwards, upside down and even diagonally. This incredible capacity for memory was retained seemingly indefinitely – even 20 years later he could “download” the data and spit it out.

We could refer to S. as an extraordinary example of unmitigated human genius. Well, if he wasn’t so dumb, that is.

For there is a most crucial issue which emerges from the tale of this remarkable human computer, one which is equally as fascinating.

S. understood almost nothing.

He was singularly unable to make meaning from the information that he was able to store so efficiently. Patterns that would be obvious to a primary school student baffled him. Take the following:

1  2  3  4
2  3  4  5
3  4  5  6
4  5  6  7

This was just a table of random digits to S. Further, was also unable to make sense out of poetry or prose. Luria, the psychologist who studied him for many years, noted that “S. came across as “generally disorganized, dull-witted and without much sense of purpose or direction in his life.”(Shenk 2010, p. 193).

And there we have it. Data is not enough, and no matter how fast we download it, if we can’t make sense of it, we are as dumb as, well, a machine. What makes us really smart as human beings is our capacity to make meaning, to understand what fits together with what, and to intuit what is of greatest value. Many of the greatest human beings are those who have forged ahead of the rest, not in terms of their capacity to assimilate information, but to make sense of information. Taking examples from a wide spectra of human endeavors, it is generally true. Think of Da Vinci, Einstein, Benjamin Franklin, the Buddha, Bill Gates, Oprah Winfrey, James Cameron…

Meaning makers and pattern recognizers. These are one of the groups of people that will be in most demand in the 21st century, according to Daniel Pink in his A Book A Whole New Mind. Computers will do the number crunching, but it is we humans who will make ultimate sense of it all. This is why even science cannot merely be about impersonal data collection, as some philosophers of science have attempted to argue. It is what we do with the data that is of vital importance. 

After all, isn't that what Neo finally did in the Matrix? His was the archetypal spiritual journey, finally seeing through the surface to the code that lay beneath everything. Only then could he set himself free.

And that's a skill that isn't going to become redundant anytime too soon.



Daniel Pink. A Whole New Mind. Riverhead. 2005.
David Shenk. The Genius in Us All. DoubleDay, 2010.


  1. Trish and Rob MacGregor said...

    Terrific post. The Matrix - the original! - seems to have all sorts of paradigm shift material in it. Personally, the idea of direct machine/brain download is one I find disturbing.

  2. Yes, the first matrix movie was great, and quite profound. Then the second one was quite disappointing, and the third one should have been called "The Matrix Re-flogged"!

  3. I do believe the ability to see patterns is important, such as synchronicity, behaviors in people, etc. It's our ability to recognize meaningful relationships in seemingly random bits of data, using all of our senses, that will propel us forward now and in the future.

  4. Glad you agree Nancy. I feel strongly that it is not merely enough to be efficient or be able to process information quickly. We need to see the big picture, and that is part of being wise. If you think of a wise person, you generally don't think of someone crunching numbers, or finishing a problem the fastest while multi-tasking. Wisdom entails equanimity. We have to be present, we have to know who we are, and we have to have developed a meaningful story for our lives.

  5. I feel really bad for S. having such a gifted extraordinary talent and not being able to make sense of it, what a waste.