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Re-thinking our own artificial intelligence


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Intelligence is the ability to acquire and apply knowledge and skills. But is this limited to human brains, or does it include the short-term memory we outsource to our digital devices?

A couple of years ago, a student came to me complaining that his history teacher wouldn’t allow him to look up answers on his phone during class; his argument being that we have this technology, so why not use it? Realizing he was serious, I gave some thought about his question before telling him that it all depends on what he believes is knowledge.

If knowledge is simply a set of facts that are to be regurgitated as if on a game show, then using a cell phone or any type of computer may seem like a logical way for answering a question. But if knowledge is something that requires memory and deep, critical thinking — the type that allows people to broaden their perspective, find empathy, come up with new ideas or innovations — reciting facts is not enough, and a cell phone won't help. Knowledge is more than facts. It has to be embedded into context to be fully appreciated and it has to have purpose.

Studies suggest that GPS may already be having a negative impact on our brains. The portion of our brain called the hippocampus is involved in memory and navigation process, and one of the main areas affected by Alzheimer’s disease. Using our innate spatial skills instead of GPS has shown to help slow down the erosion of cognitive skills later in life. We are inadvertently letting some our mental skills atrophy, for the sake of convenience, and it’s still too early to know what the long term consequences really are.

I didn't answer the student’s question in a way that would explain the difference between facts and knowledge, or data and information. Almost everyone uses computers, most of us have access to much of the information in the world in the palm of our hands. Older generations recognize how different and powerful that really is. But Millennials don’t seem to think this way, being born into the digital world.

It was only a short time ago the source and storage place for most information was the public library. "Research" meant climbing actual ladders, getting on your knees to reach the lower shelves, and going through dozens, even hundreds of books in search of information. It took time, energy, physicality, skill, and a certain level of mental and physical engagement and preparedness. That world does not exist anymore —  "research" can be done via a search bar.

In a way, I’m a hypocrite. Inadvertently, I differentiated facts and knowledge in a way that made this student feel bad about simply just knowing the facts. I myself am caught-up in this fact-knowledge conundrum, and I believe it’s changing my brain.

I turned GPS off in a big city once, eventually, though not easily, managing to arrive at my destination. It made me think of all the times I used GPS, even on short trips around Colorado Springs to destinations that I already knew how to get there. I realized I was so dependent on GPS, using it because it was simply there, that I lost some capacity to maneuver and navigate without it. Technology is causing me to outsource my own memory, and I'm not alone.

I use know to at least a couple dozen phone numbers of friends and family off the top of my head without any problem. Now, I know two numbers; my wife’s and my own. I don’t know the phone numbers of my own kids because I don’t have to know them — I just push a button on the phone. Like that student, I substitute brain power, for digital data.

At a recent educational seminar, the presenter wrote “Intelligence is a set of problem solving skills, reasoning capabilities, and habits of mind that support learning" on the board. I believe it's a good description because there are a couple of words in there that precludes computers — at least for now — form having "intelligence." Words such as "habits" and "reasoning" eliminate the capabilities of computers from that description, even though there are instances where machines can be programmed to fit that description — like chess-playing computers.

A simple chess program isn't exactly what some call artificial intelligence. But what is this ability of the computer if it’s not intelligence? Why not play chess while using your cell phone to help you make the best decisions? Why don't we all carry a computer around to supplement our own brain? People who want to use a computer as part of their own memory and thought process would seem like a logical thing to do in light of all of this. Imagine two people siting at a table watching computers that represent them, play a game of chess against each other.

Our use of technology will continue to change — and it's already changing the way we think both figuratively and physically. We are getting used to getting news via social media, and are becoming more like that student I spoke about at the beginning of this column — with a lesser appreciation for the value of critical thinking and using our own mind to develop the abilities nature designed us to have. Empathy is a uniquely human ability that is being chipped away by our reliance on accessing data, instead of knowledge.

As Neil Postman states in his book, Building a Bridge to the 18th Century, we have to reclaim the balance between mind and machine.

Thomas Russell is a high school information technology teacher and retired Army Signal Corps soldier. He is the founder of SEMtech (Student Engagement and Mentoring in Technology) and an Advisory Board Member of Educating Children of Color. His hobbies include writing, photography and hiking. Contact Thomas via Russell’s Room on Facebook, or email at, and his photography at

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