When you’re walking down a typical city street these days, it’s hard not to bump into people who are so absorbed in their smartphones and tablet computers that they’re almost one with their gadgets, oblivious to the world around them. This evolving digital dependence may conjure up creepy images of the helpless citizens in “The Matrix” movies, strapped into chairs and wired into an illusion that takes the place of reality.
But that’s taking the negative view. To neuroscientists, psychologists and researchers in the field of artificial intelligence — that is, teaching computers how to mimic and even improve upon the human thinking process — machines can be a positive influence on our lives, too. They’ve come up with the term cognitive technology to describe how electronic devices and other tools can assist and influence humans’ mental activities, such as learning, retaining and retrieving information from memory, and problem solving.
Cognitive technology encompasses not just electronic gadgets, but a range of other things that can assist human thinking, from pharmaceuticals to brain-training games. As Tel Aviv University philosophy professor Marcelo Dascal has noted, something as basic as spoken language itself is a form of cognitive technology, because it not only is a tool for describing our thoughts, but also influences the way we think. And this stuff won’t necessarily do the thinking for us “cognisors,” as researcher’s call those of us made of meat circuitry. Instead, it’ll give us an added edge over the non-augmented brain. As cognitive technology researchers Itiel Dror and Stevan Harnad explain: “Cognisors can offload some of their cognitive functions onto cognitive technology, thereby extending their performance capacity beyond the limits of their own brain power”.
As today’s technology gives way to devices with vastly more computing power and communications bandwidth, and new generations of psychoactive drugs and electronic implants eventually emerge, cognitive technology is likely to really, really rock our world. Please check out tomorrow’s follow up article where we will explain a few potential future developments.