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Is 'search technology' helping us think better?

September 29, 2008

by Mark Ollig

Alright, here it is in a nutshell: “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”

This is the well thought-out name of an article recently published in The Atlantic magazine by Nicholas Carr.

I usually write about 900 words per column – no complaints please – this article by Carr? Well, he needed 4,175 words to bash Google.

Simply stated, no, I do not believe using Google, or any other search engine for that matter, is causing us to become “stupid” or our brains to become docile – in fact, I believe it is the exact opposite.

I will admit I do become frustrated when trying to recall some piece of information tucked away in my brain - but can’t find it. I knew it once, but just can’t seem to recall it at the moment – this usually happens only when I am in a conversation with other people.

Of course, hours later, I recall what it was, but then there is no one around to tell it to.

Does this ever happen to you?

What if we started wearing an interactive wireless “Google-Kiosk” on our wrists?

This would make it convenient to be able to respond intelligently to important questions like, “How many ounces are there in one cup?”

But of course, the person who asked the question might smirk at us.

Imagine being at a social gathering when you are asked about some popular new gadget – only to realize you have not heard anything about it?

Nerdy Ned asks you, “Did you hear about the new nano storage device the size of a pencil?”

Inside of your head you are trying to recall this – you can’t – so in front of everyone you blurt out, “no,” which gives off the uncomfortable impression you are uninformed about current events.

But wait a minute.

Imagine someday in the future having a small piece of implanted “search technology” in your brain which would “analyze your thinking” about the question being asked by Ned.

Your brain then instantly starts the search of the answer by wirelessly transmitting this “inquiry.”

Traveling at light speed, your question is received inside the great and powerful “Internet Interplanetary Database of All Known Knowledge,” where it is processed.

The most logical answer is sent back to your human neural brain receptors immediately, which causes you to say out loud, “Why yes Ned, of course I heard about it.”

You nonchalantly respond to Ned with, “Are you referring to the 870-nano meter long nano-pencil, with the one Terabyte of storage in the pencil tip? I just reviewed that information in my head . . . fascinating isn’t it, Ned?”

No embarrassment and look how well informed we are! We will always be “in the know,” responding intelligently to any nerdy question asked of us.

Think this is the stuff of science fiction?

Well, here is what Sergey Brin, one of the founders of Google, had to say in an interview with Newsweek magazine in 2004. “Certainly if you had all the world’s information directly attached to your brain, or an artificial brain that was smarter than your brain, you’d be better off.”

Sounds a little like our old friend Paul Otlet’s 1934 vision of a “mechanical collective brain” containing all of the world’s information.

In 2006, Larry Page, the other founding member of Google, told a convention of scientists that Google is “really trying to build artificial intelligence and to do it on a large scale.”

Are we going to ultimately “surrender” too much of ourselves to technology?

Will we find in the future that the human brain, on the verge of losing the last vestiges of its own independent “intelligence,” standing up in revolt against an all knowing and all – powerful Internet search engine?

Will this end up like the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey – with the powerful computer named “HAL” having “too much control” over the human astronaut?

Remember the scene toward the end of the movie when HAL pleads with an uncompromising astronaut, Dave Bowman, not to shut him off?

Bowman was almost sent off to a “deep-space death” by the malfunctioning supercomputer HAL. At this point in the movie, Dave is coolly disconnecting the memory circuits which control HAL’s artificial “brain.”

Dave, the human, turns off HAL.

The light goes out on HAL. So sad.

The Internet has become the new “main street” information medium for me over the last 10 years. When I need to know something happening in the news or learn about a certain subject – you will find me typing away right here at my keyboard.

I do try to make sure my facts are correct though, as there are many of us online “citizen journalists” posting information to Wikipedia, blogs, Twitter, news feeds, newspapers, forums, chat rooms – you name it. It is extremely easy to get your thoughts and opinions online – which I encourage you to do – it is also just as easy to misinform others with inaccuracies, so be careful.

Your humble columnist feels using search engines like Google will not ultimately weaken our brain’s analytical abilities or contribute to the degeneration of our thinking processes.

Having ready and instantaneous access to information on a global scale only increases our enthusiastic desire to learn more about the world we live in, and to share what we learn with others.

The link to thearticle by Nicholas Carr in The Atlantic magazine is: http://tinyurl.com/468zuz.