I was recently (and belatedly) reading the 2016 Industry Trends report from Outsell. In addition to a lot of great data and takeaways, it included a tantalizing and slightly unsettling thought -- namely, that habituating ourselves to shorter information tidbits and residing within a fragmented and noisy knowledge sphere are leading to a general decline in our cognitive skills and stamina, a detraining of concentration. In addition to the direct effects of this, the phenomenon may affect the rate at which artificial intelligence (AI) overtakes human intelligence, as the distance between AI today and human intelligence in the future is shrinking because both aspects are moving toward each other. We're on the decline, and AI is on the rise.
There is a lot to unpack here. First, it is a stark reminder that the human brain is not something that you have, but something you develop. How you train it and feed it matters. There's a great passage in a book called, "How Not to Be Wrong." The author, Jordan Ellenberg, addresses the common complaint among school kids that they're never going to use what they learn in school in their everyday adult lives. Ellenberg argues that this is missing the point.
Just as a tennis star doesn't use weight-lifting, wind sprints, healthy eating, and stretching exercises during a tennis match, an educated person doesn't use their ability to solve quadratics or memorization of dates and events in their work lives. However, the training and conditioning from the preparatory activities make a difference in the end. Having lifted weights and pursuing a careful diet will give a tennis player an edge over a weaker player with a lousy diet, just as a person who has trained her mind to solve quadratics and memorize facts will do better with intellectual challenges than a person who slacked off. You don't use the wind sprints or quadratic drills themselves later, but you do leverage the benefits they deliver.
Every time we sneak a peek at our smartphones during a movie, we are detraining our brains from being able to sustain moderate-to-intense concentration for two hours. Every time we look away from writing a long document to check social media or email, we are detraining our minds for extended workloads.
Now, we are human, and we need breaks from work. Research has shown that taking a break helps knowledge workers, because the human brain is complex -- hot showers and long walks deliver better blood supply, which helps thinking; resting the conscious brain can help the limbic brain churn out answers in our multi-tier cranial system, leading to that classic "aha!" moment.
Another aspect of this thought is that if we're lowering the bar AI has to clear, then we're not going to get AI that's as impressive or helpful as it could be.
All in all, I found this to be a sobering reminder that we need to remain aware that while our intellectual habits are trending toward burst communication, attention fragmentation, and short attention spans, we can benefit from working out with extended mental concentration. It's not easy, the payoffs are indirect, but the benefits will likely come.