September 19, 2005 4:00 AM PDT

Intelligence in the Internet age

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It's a question older than the Parthenon: Do innovations and new technologies make us more intelligent?

A few thousand years ago, a Greek philosopher, as he snacked on dates on a bench in downtown Athens, may have wondered if the written language folks were starting to use was allowing them to avoid thinking for themselves.

Today, terabytes of easily accessed data, always-on Internet connectivity, and lightning-fast search engines are profoundly changing the way people gather information. But the age-old question remains: Is technology making us smarter? Or are we lazily reliant on computers, and, well, dumber than we used to be?

"Our environment, because of technology, is changing, and therefore the abilities we need in order to navigate these highly information-laden environments and succeed are changing," said Susana Urbina, a professor of psychology at the University of North Florida who has studied the roots of intelligence.

If there is a good answer to the question, it probably starts with a contradiction: What makes us intelligent--the ability to reason and learn--is staying the same and will never fundamentally change because of technology. On the other hand, technology, from pocket calculators to the Internet, is radically changing the notion of the intelligence necessary to function in the modern world.

Take Diego Valderrama, an economist with the Federal Reserve Bank in San Francisco. If he were an economist 40 years ago, he may have used a paper, pencil and slide rule to figure out and chart by hand how the local economy might change with a 1 percent boost in taxes. But because he's a thoroughly modern guy, he uses knowledge of the C++ programming language to create mathematical algorithms to compute answers and produce elaborate projections on the impact of macroeconomic changes to work forces or consumer consumption.

Does that mean he's not as bright as an economist from the 1950s? Is he smarter? The answer is probably "no" on both counts. He traded one skill for another. Computer skills make him far more efficient and allow him to present more accurate--more intelligent--information. And without them, he'd have a tough time doing his job. But drop him into the Federal Reserve 40 years ago, and a lack of skill with the slide rule could put an equal crimp on his career.

"The notion that the world's knowledge is literally at your fingertips is very compelling and is very beguiling."
--Vint Cerf, Internet pioneer

Intelligence, as it impacts the economist Valderrama, is our capacity to adapt and thrive in our own environment. In a Darwinian sense, it's as true now as it was millions of years ago, when man's aptitude for hearing the way branches broke or smelling a spore affected his power to avoid predators, eat and survive.

But what makes someone smart can vary in different cultures and situations. A successful Wall Street banker who has dropped into the Australian Outback likely couldn't pull off a great Crocodile Dundee impression. A mathematical genius like Isaac Newton could be--in fact, he was--socially inept and a borderline hermit. A master painter? Probably not so good at balancing a checkbook.

What's undeniable is the Internet's democratization of information. It's providing instant access to information and, in a sense, improving the practical application of intelligence for everyone.

Nearly a century ago, Henry Ford didn't have the Internet, but he did have a bunch of smart guys. The auto industry pioneer, as a parlor trick, liked to claim he could answer any question in 30 minutes. In fact, he had organized a research staff he could call at any time to get him the answer.

Today, you don't have to be an auto baron to feign that kind of knowledge. You just have to be able to type G-O-O-G-L-E. People can in a matter of minutes find sources of information like court documents, scientific papers or corporate securities filings.

"It's true we don't remember anything anymore, but we don't need to."
--Jeff Hawkins, co-founder, Palm Computing

"The notion that the world's knowledge is literally at your fingertips is very compelling and is very beguiling," said Vint Cerf, who co-created the underlying architecture of the Internet and who is widely considered one of its "fathers." What's exciting "is the Internet's ability to absorb such a large amount of information and for it to be accessible to other people, even if they don't know it exists or don't know who you are."

Indeed, Doug Engelbart, one of the pioneers of personal computing technology in the 1960s, envisioned in the early '60s that the PC would augment human intelligence. He believes that society's ability to gain insight from information has evolved with the help of computers.

"The key thing about all the world's big problems is that they have to be dealt with collectively," Engelbart said. "If we don't get collectively smarter, we're doomed."

The virtual memory
According to at least one definition, intelligence is the "ability to reason, plan, solve problems, think abstractly, comprehend ideas and language, and learn." Yet intelligence is not just about book learning or test scores; it also reflects a deeper understanding of the world. On average, people with high IQs are thought to live longer, earn more money, process information faster and have larger working memories.

Yet could all this information provided by the Internet and gadgets dampen our motivation to remember anything?

Working with the Treo handheld computing device he helped create, Jeff Hawkins can easily recount exactly what he did three years

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Birth of Direct Understanding Exchange System
The overall intelligence from whole human society has been dramatically increased but not much from each individual, if you don't include any tools with them (or ourselves). It should be called "Assited Intelligence".

For more discussion, please visit my web site at:
<a class="jive-link-external" href="" target="_newWindow"></a>

Posted by Codonology (27 comments )
Reply Link Flag
What if a person. . . .?
What if a person is adapt at survival skills, as at basic skills as well keeping up with the technology? Is that person some kind of freak?

I was a child of the 50's, in the 60's I took a class for programming unit record equipment (hardwired programming). Utilizing a IBM 360/20. In this process I had a father that used to be Upper Peninsula backwoodsman, he passed these skills onto me. As well as doing vehicle repair and maintenance. Believe it or not I even understand the complexities of the computer cars, as strange as it may seem the cars are simpler, In the 80's I got a chance to go to college to get a degree in BDP/CIS (Business Data Processing/Computer Information Systems). A continuation of what schooling I had in the 60's. Today I have kept up with the internet, I own my own little, more or less, where I teach a small business person to develop their own web site. This because a person can spend hundreds of dollars and still not get what they want.

Thanks for listening anyway.

<a class="jive-link-external" href="" target="_newWindow"></a>
Posted by techtype (25 comments )
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Message has been deleted.
Posted by techtype (25 comments )
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Memory Irrelevant!!!! I think not.
This article is silly. In an age of information, what more imortant tool is there, than your ability to recall things. Maybe not the same things our forefather's recalled, but the things we have to remember rise in all aspects of our lives, because we live in a sea of available information. So while instant recall of a poem was interesting and taught in my fathers class room, how to get access to poems, via internet, library, books, audio, home media, are all elements of what need to be taught and remebered today. Ask a 10 year old about Digemon's or Pokemons as see if they know less than a 100 or so.

Perhaps this isn't valid, but for a lark (because I remember how to use it) I searched Google for the phrase "Memory is more irelavant", no hits. I wonder really which real academics think that this statement is true. This is lazy journalism.

Time should be spent on discussing how we have to change and adapt human capabilities given the vast resources we have so that we can increase the potentioal of humanity. Now that would be worth remembering.
Posted by (1 comment )
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On the other hand
I'm constantly amazed at my ability to survive as a software engineer while my ability to do heavy math is dependant on a computer. Gone are the days of doing math in my head and should I ever lose access to my PC and need those skills, I would be in trouble. I believe that we are dangerously dependant on our machines.
Posted by (1 comment )
Link Flag
if you typed "Memory is more irelavant" and didn't get anything in Goggle, maybe it is because you spelled irrelevant wrong. =P

And ironically if you Google "Memory is more irelavant" the only hit is your own post! hahah
Posted by Yog Sothoth (37 comments )
Link Flag
It is not what a person knows that makes them intelligent. It is being able to put all the pieces together, and see the relationships, that allows understanding to progress to the next level. All the parts existed before Einstein came up with E=mc2. It was that he was able to put them together that made him special. It is not what you know that makes you smart, it is what you understand.
Posted by Mister C (423 comments )
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Nothing's changed or has it.
Before email we had pidgeons and smoke signals.
Before web page publishing we had feather and ink.

But is the increase in technology at the expense of our brain.
Well considering we only use 10% of our brain, you have to wonder why we are not utilising the other 90%. Perhaps it is technology and our inventions that stop the full potential of use, as we rely more and more on what our hands have created.
Perhaps the Internet will give us telepathic like ability with instant communication with anyone, anywhere, anytime? But with all the marvel of technology will we only need to use 5% of our brain in the future, due to our reliance on technology to do the rest?

E.g., who needs a memory when we have as much artificial memory as we desire.

The real test would be to take a technophobe and remove all his technology. He would then have to exercise his brain in new ways, instead of the limited connections to technology he has.
Posted by t8 (3716 comments )
Reply Link Flag
I meant technophile
Mistake in my parent post. Replace the word technophobe for technophile.
Posted by t8 (3716 comments )
Link Flag
Slightly wrong there.
The body reserves uses only 10% of the brain because the other 90% is required for redundancy. Redundant systems take over when other systems break down. If you have a serious illness that damages part of your brain the body will automatically try to use other parts of the brain to perform the same tasks. These unused parts are evenly distributed all over the brain to make these reconnections possible. When people suffer brain injuries or strokes they very often lose the capability to walk, speak or use another part of their body. However, many people are able to recover by retraining their brains to use other parts of the body. Alzheimers is a typical disease that destroys the brain. It is important that such patients do not catch viruses since this will contribute heavily to the rate of loss of the brain. When all redundant systems have been used up (ie. the other 90%) the patient dies.
Posted by jsargent (98 comments )
Link Flag
The Intelligence of Intelligence
I must disagree with some points in your essay. The human brain *is* affected and modified by our technology, and the information it provides us. The way we think is altered, the way we abstract and draw inferences is enhanced, the way we interact with the information is vastly different from what it was 100 years ago.<p>

The human and his technology forms a unit that is almost cyborg in nature; the synergy of that unit is not to be taken lightly.<p>

In your article, you mention that a forcaster of ecomonics today would be lost with "slide rule skills" of the past. But really, how difficult is it to use a slide rule? I was using one in grade school! Really, it's not hard to pick up the basics in just a few minutes. On the other hand, someone from the slide-rule era would have a harder go at adapting to today's computers and software.<p>

We do not exist seperately from our technology. We merge with it, and we become more and more inseperable with each passing day. We change the technology and the technology changes us. Man and machine form a symbiotic and synergestic union that is greater than the parts. We are transformed by technology, and that is both a good and a bad thing.<p>

Bureaucrats use technology as an excuse to do less work. For instance, if you need them to do something out of the ordaniry, they will exclaim that the computer does not allow for it, and cannot procede unless you acquese to the computer -- or more importantly, the bureaucracy that wrote its programs.<p>

It is truly a "brave new world", and in the future, technology will make bigger impacts on us and what it means to be "human" and "intelligent
, as surely we will make big changes on technology.
Posted by (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
Intelligence starts with an idea!
Remember the old light bulb over the person's head
in the comic books we used to read? Organizing one's thoughts has always been a supreme problem
when wanting to relate to any new concept. So, when the SAT question stuns your has
to be amazing for kids today to relate to a handheld computer or if on their localized desktop
pulling up Google for a quick answer. The many
old troglodytes that refuse to join the computer
society today are the same ones that sat in caves
after the discovery of fire and said that techy
stuff was too scary for them to deal with and ate
their dinosaurs - hair, bone and all.

We have to admit that when we don't know the answer to any question - we start our interdisaplinary study on the nearest search engine and can't wait to discover the year that
the wheel was first discovered or how many calories the average American ingests every year.

Thank goodness there are still giving and caring
people out there that can't wait to dispense "their form of the truth".... but it
certainly gives us a great starting point doesn't it now?
Posted by ronwinship (15 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Reporters are less intelligent
The easy of technology fools the users into thinking they are as smart as those of less tech. While spell checkers prevent most errors, an increasing number of writers and editors all missing words in articles because they cannot master a grammar checker. Fact checking must surely be out of reach of this reporter. Forty years ago, there was a very big market in mechanical and electronic calculators. I have a 1938 (that's 67 years ago) calculator for proof.
Posted by gthurman (67 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Intelligence is a constant
This is an old joke, but totally true.

Intelligence is not knowledge. If anything, the idea that tech leads to intelligence is the sign that we are getting dumber. Luckily, intelligent people do not believe this.

Better put: intelligence lies in the questions, not the answers.
Posted by farker1 (145 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Population intelligence change
From the article:
&gt; What makes us intelligent--the ability to reason
&gt; and learn--is staying the same and will never
&gt; fundamentally change because of technology.

For an individual this might be true. The intelligence of a population on the other hand can change because of technology, for example if
technologically apt people get more (or less)
Posted by (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
I. Q. increasing
Intelligence is not, as we measure it, constant. the average score on IQ tests has increased by 14 points over the last fifty years. There is great debate whether it is due to more education, more media, or that. Personally, I attribute it to a greater exposure (from many sources) to problems and their solutions. to learn more about this phenomenon "google" on the "Flynn effect".
Posted by (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
Computers have made us stupid and Asimov predicted it
Isaac Asimov predicted that the rise of handheld calculators and related devices would mean that no one would be able to do simple calculations anymore. And indeed, they can't. My students can't; the way they see it, they have devices to do that. But devices should replace instances where calculations would be cumbersome, not prevent students from even knowing how to calculate simple sums.
There is a terrible cost when someone says, "Why bother knowing anything? I'll just Google it!"
Posted by mcgrail (5 comments )
Reply Link Flag
The Internet
Although I feel the Internet has helped in a lot of ways, I feel that it still needs a lot of work, I think that, it needs to be improved because there are a lot of pieces of useless junk on the internet that doesn't really help in any situation. I also feel that they need to start taking out the URL's that are no longer being used. I want to see the internet grow, and become a place for everyone to communicate, and share ideas and things like that, but I feel that they need to do an major upgrade to the system, before something happens, and it doesn't work.
Posted by wheels824 (1 comment )
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20 per cent of websites are controlled by the mafia- if you think them afia disappearwed think again- hacker love the internet- scammers love the internet.kin the early days of the internet. there was some hope that luddites would make the nety an issue but as the world drank the coolaids the following has happened-people are getting cataracts at earlier ages internet addiction is now a disorder more people are getting obersity thank you us govt-and as jef hawkins says noone has to remember anything-life expectancy will be shorter as the average person inthe wolrd spends 40 hours on then et as well as working-nothig life sleep deprivatio to cause earler death or obesity-do you have tendtinities i your handf- do you feel more crank or almost mentally ill then welcome to the brave new world of internet aDDICTION.. ITI S AMAZING THAT EXCEPT FOR PSYCHOLOGISTS AND PSCHATRISTS NONE WANTS TO TAKE ON SERGE BRIN JERRY YANG AND LARRY ELLISON BILLIONAIRES WHO HAVE PROFITED FROM THE NET. THE WORLD HAS DRANK THE COOLIAIDS MAJOR UNIVERSITIES NOW SHOULD DISCONTINUE ALL JOURNALISM PROGRAMS BECAUSE EVENTUALLY THEY WILL-IF HUXLEY WAS ALIVE, HE WOULD HAVE SAID YOU CREATED THIS HORRIFIC NIGHTMARE NOW LIVE YOUR LIFEI N IT. PEOLE ARE LAZY -THEY DO NOT KNOWWHAT THE DEWEY DECIMAL SYSTEM IS - THEY WANT EASY THEY WANT THE NET IN THE END THEY WILL PAY A BIG PRICE FOR ASS ALL PEOLE KNOW THERE ARE 2 SIDES OF A STORY- HOPE YOU GET ENOUGH SLEEP DO NOT GET OBESE AND EXERCISE BUT YOU HAVE NO TIME YOU ARE ADDICTED THE YOUNG ARE IN WORSE STRAITS THEY WIL HAVE TO LIVE THEIR LIFE NOT IN A WORLD OF LOVE BUTIN A WIRED 24/7 WORLD OF PERPETUALLY INTERNET LONELINESS- BUT AS THE YONG SAY HEY IT IS COOL THE NET- WELL THEY DIE OFF EARLIER THEY WILL HAVE PAID THE PRICE DOCTORIRAGRUBER@ATT.NET- DR. gRUBER GOESON TV AND RADIO TO DISCUSS THE SOCIOLOGICAL ISSUES OF THE INTERNET AND HOW IT IS DERSTROYING YOURLIFE-
Posted by inafunk (3 comments )
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as millions of people read caughtin the net, they are starting to see their lives erode from the digital world-they are addicted they will sleep less they will be isolated they will become obese they wil have invisible friends they will scrint and have wrinkes around the eyes they will ghave migranes better we stop now tose that are addicted to games willlose their spouse they have already been internet kilings- the net was intended to be a tool for god but iti a tool for serge brin and microsift to make billions - americans and people of the universe are in denial because they are slackers- the net will also destroy organized religion so many people like that one- so on the net you can be who you are not in reallife the net is the ultimate scam-in the next few year many sociologists will be writing abyut how the net ****** up the world- retinal damage is something you willove to have so be a 24/7 netter and die 10 year earlier- it is sort of like playing 3 point basketball those wholive by the 3 die by the 3 but with most of the world in denial about the net- because they are addictied these are the people who hated libraries because it was work these are the peole who wanted easy and google sensed that- it is sort of living in purgatory thousands of peole are screaming to their therapists i cannot function in the digital world- peoople almost feel a relief to be with other people and go to a restaurant and eat and be free of the net but remember you can be free for liminted times the world is chained to thenet and the cnsequences wil be a total nightmare- net advocates or those traspped by the net can give me their stories- in the aggregate the net causes mental illness- it isis incontrovertible-i saw a class of net addicts today and all said they wish it neverh appened and they blamed al gore whichis rather fooliosh al gore is a multimillionaire- he has others work thenet for him he is too busy making money-as they say in the bronx to the people of the world suckahs
Posted by inafunk (3 comments )
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as the people who control the net, better caled geek theyhavce a vested interest that everyone become a gek or robot they do not want to discuss the hazards of the net as outlined in the book caught by thenet they do not want to discuss how men who meet girlfriends cheat on them by emailing other women at 2 in the morning or who peole get wrinkes from eyestrainon thenet there are over 165 calamities to using the net beyong viruses and identity theft-the reason you may ask is why are peole addicted to the digital world so jeff bezos can become a gazillionaire. simply iti s about money- first newspaers will close journalism schools can shutdown -soon people need not go to church or synagogue soon people will not have to leave thierhouse as one shrink told his gay clinetsin san francisco go to the gay bars and you willlnot be depressed emailing 14 hours a day is fuel for mental illness but geeks make money on the net for them it idiffernet if you do not make money on thenet or arenot hawking or scamming you are getting rippedoff you are losing time in your life- if people in 1880 could see the next they would say what ahorrible world - love is dead the net has replaced love you often hear the term ilove computers thatis what peolelove life has been replaced by the net technology gurus, advocatesof the net can alwasy debateme on the newshours or charlie rose- the suckahs of the world are in denials world will be created by the net- ie tehran iran- would say for every person who wishes there wasno internet 1000000 are happy they can drown themselves in it it is the new cocaine
Posted by inafunk (3 comments )
Reply Link Flag
I think that what we easily forget is that the common person has traditionally been unable to leave a mark on history. The people who are remembered for their brightness are the one's that had the time or resources to exercise it. The proportion is probably about the same now, but Joe Shmoe has a much louder voice, creating the impression maybe that we are getting dumber.
Posted by sloppycrane (1 comment )
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"What makes us intelligent--the ability to reason and learn--is staying the same and will never fundamentally change because of technology."

Stefanie Olsen must not have heard of the "Flynn Effect," a term for the rising IQ scores over the last century. IQ scores have been increasing yearly over the last 100 years but not in the areas we'd expect. Learned knowledge like vocabulary and math ability has stayed roughly the same. The area we see the most increase in is abstract reasoning/problem-solving. So the ability to reason has in fact fundamentally changed, although at this point we can't say for sure that technology is to blame.
Posted by FryMonkey237 (1 comment )
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