How Mobile Phones Will Make You Smarter


I had a teacher in Jr. High who was rather crotchety. He held strong opinions on many a social ill.  I am pretty sure his daily complaints were the real joy in his life. One of his habitual rants that stuck in my head centered on the fact that calculators made our minds dull. He called it the “idiot box”. He didn’t want us to use calculators as it was certain that our mental faculties would deteriorate.  I always thought his diatribe was rather misplaced as I found the calculator an invaluable tool to get the job done and move on with life.

The problem with his sentiment boils down to identifying what is the meaning of intelligence. (As a side note if you haven’t read Jeff Hawkins’ book On Intelligence it is a must. The implications for computing are enormous.) Much the same way we learn to read by first learning letters, then words, then sentences, then paragraphs, then finally books, our intelligence leverages the little things we already know to work with larger thoughts and ideas.  The ability to synthesize a hypothesis – extrapolate from what we already know- is the hallmark of intelligence.

I recently read an article by Steve Olenski regarding How Google Affects Our Memory. His concern is the decline in our ability to recall data because of having easy access to the data. However, I see this as a concern that doesn’t really matter. The long-term goal isn’t to recall facts but to formulate ideas.  Much like my Jr. High teacher, the fallacy in the article is misappropriating the value of the data – as if the data by itself has value. But data without concepts to tie it together is meaningless bits. For example, is it more important to remember the dates of the civil war or the fundamental concepts of the cause of conflict, what it says about human nature, and how not to repeat it?  Is it more important to remember a person’s contact information or a better way of interacting with them?

Steve Olenski is right – the internet, Google, and mobile device are most assuredly affecting our cognitive process – but in many positive ways. I for one welcome this new ‘idiot box’ I carry in my pocket. It functions as a tool to retain facts for me that I consider the minor details. It gives me the mind space to work on higher-order problems. Not only that, I can access the data faster than ever and rule out false ideas from positive ones. Instead of looking for an encyclopedia I can spend time thinking about how mobility and the ability to access instantly many different data streams will take us to new places.

How about you – do you think the ability to use tools such as mobile devices, Google, and the internet help make us smarter?

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “How Mobile Phones Will Make You Smarter

  1. Really enjoyed this post!

    I think that there are a million conceivable and all-too-plausible scenarios where our increasing reliance on computing and information technology leads to an intellectually crippled, dystopian society.

    On the other hand, I wholeheartedly agree that information technology (the internet, online news, journals, blogs, wikipedia, web applications, etc.) has granted us a plethora of amazing tools and methods to educate, create, and connect in meaningful, positive ways.

    There is also another way to think about information technology and its impact on our lives. I would argue that, flipping the age-old debate “How relevant are Shakespeare’s writings in today’s world?” upside-down, the debate as to whether the internet will ultimately prove to be a force for good or evil in the world can be framed in the form of the question: “Are the information technology platforms that we are creating and participating in relevant to us now, and if not how can we make them so in the future?”. For example, in twenty years’ time, will we be designing information technology that is relevant to, and perhaps more appropriately “compatible” with our the limits of the human mind?

    We can only hope that technology never strays too far afield of the very humanity from whence it came…

    • I think that is a really good question. It think a lot of the time we believe they are relevant but in reality only bring occupation to the mind – seems like there are an awful lot of wasted cycles on insignificant infotainment. You aggree? If so what would you see as a better use?

      Also, given what the human mind currently is, a bounded entity, what if we could augment our ability to hypothesize in the digital realm – have you checked out http://numenta.com ?

      • Hah, yes, I agree that there is a lot of distracting ‘infonoise’ out there. The problem as I see it is that although you could say “The ability to synthesize a hypothesis… is the hallmark of intelligence”, I find it hard to see how this theory of artificial intelligence relates to “value”, or how it might contribute to making humans smarter.

        The most fundamental, and least controversial, understanding of intelligence as it applies to living beings is that it not only “is correct” but that it also benefits the bearer of said intellect in some way. So maybe it would be more enlightening to say that “The ability to synthesize the most correct and/or valuable hypothesis… is the hallmark of intelligence.”

        Now the “wasted cycles on insignificant infotainment” that you mentioned can be put into better perspective. The fact that there is so much information available to us at any instant, and that it is literally being produced faster than any one brain could keep track of, means that there will probably always be infotainment that we will come across that, while interesting, is simply not of any real value to anyone.

        I think that Numenta is definitely on to something, though. It looks to me that the technology still has a while to go before being ready to analyze, predict and understand just what goes on inside the mind of the internet, but the potential for making the web a much more valuable learning tool is definitely there.

        A perhaps extreme example of the possibilities of direct brain-based information technology could go something like this:
        1) A question arises in your mind.
        2) The question is then mapped onto a virtual brain modeled on your own.
        3) Your virtual brain extrapolates from what *you* already know, searches the internet for you and proceeds to narrow down and output only the most valuable (note, not necessarily the most “related”) search results for your query.

        I may just be in over my head here, but yes I agree that what Numenta is aiming for – that is, software able to extract valuable information from mass amounts of data by simulating the brain’s own higher order processing and learning capabilities to find and highlight patterns – could be used as a powerful digital analytics engine as well.

        At the end of the day, being able to learn, analyze and consolidate new information through accelerated computing based on the same mechanics of intelligence that our brains use may very well be the key to safely aligning “humanity” with “information technology”. Perhaps this is the only real solution to the discrepancy between ‘valuable information on the internet’ and ‘the other 90% that is just trying to get your attention’, even if it is still a ways off in the future. Phew, long comment… Hope most of this made sense to you! I tend to get carried away when speaking of anything remotely futuristic :)

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