I own up – I’ve been a compulsive button pusher since I could walk. The basement of the Science Museum was the incubator of all that followed (the only place in the early 70s that could sate a button obsessed child). This obsession eventually led to a career in IT, a lifelong love for the latest tech and a fervent interest in where technology could lead us.
The pace of change continuously astounds and bewilders me. I just about remember horses pulling coal carts as a kid and now we’re developing driverless cars. The Internet of Things will be part of our daily life soon and humankind seems to be losing the ability to stand up straight already. How long will it be before we start resembling bananas more than apes with a pronounced curve of the spine and neck from staring down at mobiles?
According to the World Economic Forum, we’re now in the Fourth Industrial Revolution. We’ve already lived through an immense amount of change and who knows what is round the corner. The ever rising march of Artificial Intelligence (AI) shows great promise in many fields for the future but it is also highly controversial and multi-faceted.
Even Elon Musk, the ‘Thomas Edison of the 21st century’ has serious doubts about what we are creating for ourselves. The serial entrepreneur who has had a hand in all types of technology from electric cars, rockets, Paypal, Hyperloop, solar power systems, electric jets to digital technology. The man who is famous for his plans to colonise Mars, further DNA sequencing to identify cures for diseases and viable fusion to create energy for us all for ever.
A man who is a bringer of great promise. However Musk also predicts that ‘robots will be able to do everything better than us’ and they will ‘take your jobs, and government will have to pay your wage’. He also believes that we should be very concerned and proactively regulate Artificial Intelligence as it is a ‘risk to the existence of human civilization’ in a way that risks we commonly deal with now are only harmful to a set of individuals in society.
In contrast Mark Zuckerberg, the equally famous entrepreneur of Facebook is more optimistic saying that artificial intelligence will improve life in the future and that naysayers are irresponsible.
The positives of AI are certainly immense
“For people with a disability, the Fourth Industrial Revolution will give us super powers” Birgit Skarstein, Double paralympic athlete and World Rowing Champion, Norway
“Imagine a robot capable of treating Ebola patients or cleaning up nuclear waste” Dileep George, artificial intelligence and neuroscience researcher
“Any skilled engineer can take control remotely of any connected 'thing'. Society has not yet realized the incredible scenarios this capability creates.” André Kudelski, Chairman and CEO of Kudelski Group
Artificial Intelligence (AI) is already playing a massive role in health care and some believe that there is an AI Healthcare ‘tsunami coming’ that will benefit all. Data currently has the biggest part to play in healthcare providing the chance to revolutionise current healthcare systems.
The future certainly looks bright – but have you started to notice the changes in everyday life that are already impacting our lives?
“You cannot wait until a house burns down to buy fire insurance on it. We cannot wait until there are massive dislocations in our society to prepare for the Fourth Industrial Revolution.” Robert J. Shiller, 2013 Nobel laureate in economics, Yale University
Throughout the globe transportation, communication and education have all improved through high tech. With every improvement, however, there are negative consequences such as resource depletion, increased population and pollution.
In our more mundane everyday activities digital technology is already changing our lives. Many of us are already suffering from distraction, narcissism, expectation of instant gratification, depression, depleted vision and hearing, neck strain and lack of sleep. The National Sleep Foundation found 95% of people when surveyed used electronic devices before sleep and this can cause issues for our overall wellbeing.
We are becoming less dependent now on our memory and more on Google but often feeling that we’re suffering from information overload. If we don’t ‘use our brains’ will we lose our capability to think effectively? Or will we adapt in a different way?
When examining brain scans of frequent internet and mobile users vs occasional users there was twice as much activity in the short term memory and quick decision making area. We are learning to skim where there is too much information. Does that mean that we are becoming shallow thinkers or does it mean our ability to decipher information is actually becoming more efficient?
I attended a LinkedIn conference recently on the use of insight and data in recruitment and the potential for AI.
The recruitment landscape is changing rapidly and the McKinsey Global Institute estimates that 46% of the activities in Europe’s top five economies are already susceptible to automation – not in the near future, but right now.
This will affect all of us in some way and we need to be prepared for the shift towards even more hi tech based skills. There aren’t enough key digital workers or software developers already in many countries and this situation will only be exacerbated as the years go by. We may need a future full of coders or at the very least software that professionals can use that removes the need to code.
It wasn’t the AI potential or recruitment issues that grabbed my attention at the conference, however. It was a speech by Baroness Sarah Greenfield, a leading neurologist.
Sarah used her neuroscience background to look at what could be happening to many of us in the modern digital age. She thinks that with so many of us obsessed with social media, search engines, mobile apps and gaming that we are actually losing our identity as human beings. We are lacking the enriched environment that creates increased neural connections in the brain and that the average person in the future may behave more like a 3 year old. That alarmist sentence certainly grabbed my attention
She likened the lack of an interesting life full of different experiences to that of someone with Dementia where someone loses brain connections and doesn’t have a frame of reference (rather like a small child). In other words, their identity is missing, they have short attention spans and demand that needs be satisfied instantly
With conversations taking place more online and less so face-to-face with no opportunity for eye contact or emotions, the true sense of someone’s identity could be slowly eroded. Words are normally only 10% of the total impact of a face-to-face conversation. Are we lacking 90% of normal interaction on Social Media? Do we rely on emojis to perceive emotion now?
Sarah stated that the move away from reading to video game playing was concerning. Reading allows you to have a deep ‘relationship’ with the characters where you become the character in a way that isn’t really possible in video games.
Sarah showed us brain scans of gamers vs gamblers and how the Dopamine pathways were very similar and that damaged dopamine can lead to taking greater risks. The thrill of the moment when playing a game or gambling can override the consequences with the senses overtaking cognitive thought. Is our use of social media, the internet and apps reducing us to a society who is constantly craving stimulation, trying to achieve a Dopamine high, only living in the here and now and being driven by our feelings rather than serious thought?
I considered the level of gaming, social media and relentless Google searching via mobile throughout my family and pondered the consequences
I can already see my children and all of their friends being taken over by gaming. They don’t talk about much else and seem to be totally ruled by it. Then my own usage is much higher than I would like. I work with Social Media and it is hard to avoid but I am certainly far too dependent on it.
I started delving into whether Sarah Greenfield’s comments are absolutely on the button. The scientific community have issues with some of her statements which need more proof rather than just hypothesis So I looked for further evidence as I’m sure that much of this is true to a certain extent as I see it every day with people stumbling through life joined to their mobiles and children not going out to play in the way they used to.
So many of us use Facebook. The ‘Like’ button is acknowledged to be the same as receiving a little reward. Users gamble when they do something on Facebook – will we get a Like or be ignored? We’re all subconsciously looking for positive feedback and confirmation, and yes it is addictive. Social Media has become a digital drug that has taken over our culture.
And does heavy Social Media usage actually make you feel good? A study in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology found that Facebook and depressive symptoms go hand in hand. “Social comparison” is what links Facebook time and depressive symptoms together. Thinking that your friends are having a better time than you. It suggests that users need to post a balance of good and bad. I’ve been sucked in by this but on reflection if I’m having a great time I’m not thinking of Facebook. I see people at gigs filming the whole night but feel that they’re actually missing the chance to immerse themselves in the atmosphere (whilst I'm dancing like a woman possessed)
It’s not just Social Media, however – there’s the apps. I hang my head in shame at using Candy Crush as a Mum gamer years ago. But it didn’t stop there – I became a master of Sim City and then Fallout Shelter and realised I had better stop when my kids started asking me for mobile app tips #parentingfail. I watch Netflix on my mobile in the bath, I’m always checking Social Media for work and communicating with people in sports/community groups that I need to be on top of. It’s a mixture of positive and negative – I am reminded of what I need to do, could be doing, should be doing – but its constant. I even get mobile app reminders telling me to meditate! Oh the irony
Scott Levin, a Director of the US Family Medicine Residency Program, thinks that parents are so focused on their children’s screen time that they forget about their own usage. "If we're not aware, as parents, of what we're modeling for our kids, then there are high prices to pay”.
69% of parents and 78% of teens check their mobiles at least hourly (Common Sense Media)
So why do we get so drawn into games and mobile apps? Even Mums? I even know a Grandmother who played Candy Crush throughout the night.
Game designers call it ‘juice’ – the feedback or reward that you get from playing a game. Candy Crush plays sounds, flashes brightly and praises you in a strangely deep voice and apparently we like that – a bit much.
Juice is intended to join the gaming and real worlds together. The opportunities for Juice in virtual reality (VR) technology are even greater where the user is in an immersive environment and the juice might even be multisensory soon to include touch, hearing and smell.
Is the future of some of us going to be one of a VR life rather than a real one? If the VR life appears better than your own will users start removing themselves from normal society and living in this VR world?
Researchers have studied the psychological rewards of video games vs gambling vs drug use for over 20 years. They’ve compared the brain's dopamine pathway (the pleasure part) but we still don’t know whether uncontrollable video game playing is an addiction on its own terms or just a symptom of deeper problems such as depression or anxiety.
New technologies are often blamed for compulsive behaviour when depression and social anxiety are the true culprits. "When you don't know how to fix that and create opportunities for yourself, you feel helpless. Why not play video games?" (Video Game Researcher, Nick Yee)
Sarah Greenfield recommends that we apply a little risk management to our lives and ensure that we are living real lives and not just digitl ones. Her advice probably resonates with most as it is standard advice given by mothers throughout recent times. But it is probably more important now than ever.
The UK is known for its creative industries and if we allow our creativity to slide and become an unthinking population of 3 year olds what do we have left?
Is this absolutely true for everyone? How do you become a brilliantly creative games designer without being fairly gaming obsessed? Are our software developers all devoid of cognitive thought? Of course not
Our world is changing, and our brains are adapting to that new world. Good analysis and research looking at the co-evolution of mind and society can only be a good thing.
It seems to be both but it doesn’t have to be that way. We can reduce the potential peril by researching the effect digital technology is having and taking steps to counteract it. We can put heavy checks and balances into what is being developed and how. The overarching concern may be whether that will happen if the real power behind society lies with the huge technology companies