Technological progress could bring intellectual regress

Ryan Neely, Guest Reporter

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One of the much-hyped technological advancements of our day is “artificial intelligence”. While this isn’t quite as pie in the sky as flying cars and space tourism, we still have a long way to go before technology can truly replicate the human brain in any capacity. Currently, the most notable consumer applications of artificial intelligence are voice assistants that can’t even answer basic questions. Then again, maybe humans aren’t so different in that respect.

In all seriousness, I certainly hope that I don’t have to be the one to break it to you that computers have radically transformed our lives. The more of our lives that we cede to them, the more our minds become intertwined and dependent on them. To illustrate this, we can use this memorable quote from Steve Jobs. He says that in the same way that a bicycle makes humans more efficient in transportation, computers can make their brains more efficient. Keep in mind, this was decades ago, long before computers had the role they have now in our society. If computers were a bicycle before, what are they now? Perhaps a car. However, as time goes on, it seems like we may be shifting from the driver’s seat over to the passenger’s seat, or even stowed away in the trunk.

Modern technology strives to be simple and automatic. “It just works”, they say. This means that the user may have less input into what they are experiencing. One early manifestation of this mentality was the iOS App Store. While remarkably well designed, one notable aspect of it was that apps faced a strict approval process to be admitted. Apple had very specific guidelines as to which system functions apps were allowed to take advantage of, as well as restrictions on content found to be offensive.

The rationale here is that users want a curated experience rather than simply the tools to make their own. With the enormous success of the iPhone, this became the dominant mindset in Silicon Valley. Facebook, for instance, began to see it as their responsibility to save their users from encountering “fake news” a couple years ago. Before, the expectation was that people could use their critical thinking skills to make this determination for themselves. Apparently, however, Mark Zuckerberg thinks that Facebook users are too stupid for that.

Humans also, apparently, are too stupid to use household appliances. The term “internet of things” (IoT) refers to a fantasy of the tech industry that all household appliances should be connected to the internet. Some IoT devices actually make sense, such as the Nest Thermostat, which can adjust itself to conserve energy when you are away from home. Contrast this with Phillips Hue, a smart lighting system that greatly struggles to justify its own existence. Have you ever wanted to make all of the lights in your house red? Have you ever wished that you could just politely ask your lights to turn on instead of enduring the arduous task of flipping a switch? It’s a classic example of a solution in search of a problem, and it’s a much more typical example of what IoT has become. Replacing every single appliance in any given person’s home with its “smart” equivalent (including but not limited to: toasters, refrigerators, water bottles, toothbrushes, and yoga mats) would most likely drive them insane.

The center of this high-tech home invasion is the concept of the “smart speaker”, which, unfortunately, has actually taken off. With Google Home, the Amazon Echo, and the Apple HomePod, the user now has the ability to execute everyday tasks in the most cumbersome manner possible. There is not a single a practical use for these, other than simply playing music, which can be done with a much less expensive speaker. Having a conversation with a voice assistant to accomplish otherwise simple tasks is simply infantile. Reading and typing are more precise than speaking and listening. Sending a text message, checking the weather, or in the Echo’s case, shopping, are all tasks that anyone over the age of three can accomplish much more quickly and easily through a graphical user interface.

Although the song 21st Century (Digital Boy) was released in 1990, the lyrics are somehow even more relevant today:

“See, I’m a 21st century digital boy

I don’t know how to read, but I’ve got a lot of toys”

Technology has the power to change our society for the better, as it has for thousands of years (remember, the word “technology” refers to more than just electronics). However, it should be designed to empower users rather than coddle them.

Children are supposed to become independent and self-sufficient as they grow into adulthood. If the the tech world maintains the track its on, and people continue to accept it, Gen Z may be the first generation not to achieve that honor.