Natural Born Cyborgs


Years ago, I read a great book by Andy Clark called Natural Born Cyborgs. The thesis of the book is that humans are natural tool users and the current way that we use search engines, mobile phones, and other modern devices are no different. We naturally adapt our lives to using these new tools. Clark considers cell phones, PDAs, laptops, and Internet search engines as "prime, if entry-level, [examples of] cyborg technology". He says "the mind is just less and less in the head." In fact I regularly called my laptop my "exocortext."

For a look at how far this might go, I recommend reading the first chapter of Charles Stross' book Accelerando. In Accelerando, the lead character (Manfred Macx) is essentially a cyborg who's daily interactions with the world are so efficient and leveraged that he makes his living by having ideas, patenting them, wrapping the IP in an LLC, and selling them to the highest bidder. Dozens a day.

I was reminded of this today while I was reading a Wired article today by Clive Thomson called Cyborg Advantage. He talks about how computer-human teams are better at chess than either humans or computer alone:

At a "freestyle" online tournament in 2005, where any kind of entrant was allowed, such human-machine pairings were absolutely awesome. In fact, the overall winner wasn't one of the grandmasters or supercomputers; it was a pair of twentysomething amateurs using run-of-the-mill PCs and inexpensive apps.

What gave them the upper hand? They were especially skilled at leveraging the computer's assistance. They knew better how to enter moves, when to consult the software, and when to ignore its advice. As Kasparov later put it, a weak human with a machine can be better than a strong human with a machine if the weak human has a better process.

The most brilliant entities on the planet, in other words (at least when it comes to chess), are neither high-end machines nor high-end humans. They're average-brained people who are really good at blending their smarts with machine smarts.

From Clive Thompson on the Cyborg Advantage | Magazine
Referenced Mon Mar 29 2010 16:24:16 GMT-0600 (MST)

Thompson goes into how this is sparking a debate about how far this kind of thing should go.

These days, though, there's a big debate between folks who love our modern, digitally enhanced lifestyle and those who are unsettled by it. The chess example shows us why there's such a gap. People who are thrilled by personal technology are the ones who have optimized their process --- they know how and when to rely on machine intelligence. They've tweaked their Facebook settings, micro-configured their RSS feeds, trained up the AI recommendations they get from Apple's Genius or TiVo.

And crucially, they also know when to step away from the screen and ignore the clamor of online distractions. The upshot is that they feel smarter, more focused, and more capable. In contrast, those who feel intimidated by online life haven't hit that sweet spot. They feel the Internet is making them harried and --- as Nicholas Carr suggested in The Atlantic --- "stupid."

From Clive Thompson on the Cyborg Advantage | Magazine
Referenced Mon Mar 29 2010 16:25:51 GMT-0600 (MST)

Whenever I hear these kinds of arguments, I'm reminded of something Scott Lemon is fond of saying when this comes up. We're also completely dependent on grocery stores, but you don't see anyone decrying the use of grocery stores and modern technologies that are destroying our children's ability to forage for food.

One trick is knowing what you need to teach in school. For example, calculators are everywhere, but I still frequently carry out arithmetic in my head. In fact, understanding the process of multiplication, for example, is probably more important to my reasoning than being able to get to a specific correct answer. I can use a calculator for getting specific answers, but I can't use a calculator to reason.

That's the real point of Thompson's article: learning how to use technology for what it's good at (like finding all the potential outcomes of a specific mode) while retaining the ability to reason, strategize, and take the leaps of logic that humans are capable of.