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Thoughts following the Watson’s Victory on Jeopardy

February 17, 2011

When you read the headline “Human Brains are Shrinking“, when do imagine this began? With the advent of the comic book, the TV, video games, Lady Gaga? It is true that our brains are smaller than our ancestors, but not our grandparents or even our great great great great great grandparents. Our brains are smaller than our human ancestors of 15,000 -20,000 years ago. It turns out that Neanderthals had larger brains (they were also a whole lot stronger, if not taller) and the largest human brains belonged to Cro-Magnon man (though that is not so hard to believe when you see images of the paintings they left behind on the cave walls in Lascaux, France.) One possible reason for this is specialization. Hunter-gatherers of 10 to 20 thousand years ago had to do just about everything for themselves. Once towns started to develop, people started to specialize, possibly requiring fewer skills and allowing the smaller brained of the species to survive and reproduce.
In ancient times, poets wrote epic poems which they could recite for hours and which were passed on from generation to generation orally (even with their already shrunken brains.) Feats of memory, reciting Beowolf or the Iliad, while not commonplace were not exceptional either. With writing came collective memory at the cost of our individual ability. Islanders of the South Pacific are legendary for their ability to navigate from island to island by “reading” the currents of sea and air. How long will they maintain this skill as GPS becomes more and more pervasive.
Everywhere one turns one sees ways in which our skills and abilities are diminished by our reliance on technology. Perhaps our technology improves (in capability if not grandeur) but we shrink. Until recently one could argue that we were still the ones building the computers or robots, but we are on the threshold of the time when computers and robots design and build themselves. An old Star Trek foresaw a future in which beings became disembodied brains. No longer bound by their fragile and temporary bodies, their minds were able to live and grow indefinitely. But why would our brains grow if we no longer use them?
Change at an evolutionary pace is, by definition, invisible in one lifetime. It is difficult to see over the course of the written word. But we can see it over the course of recent human history (since the days when Neanderthal, Cro-Magnon, Homo floresiensis, and who knows who else shared the earth.) Humankind may be making advances, but what will become of humans. Will we be nothing more than cohabitants of a world run by computers? Will we become as specialized as social insects who, like ants, are able to build cities, wage war, and engineer our environment but ultimately become merely interchangeable cogs in a great machine?
In the immortal words of John Henry “A man ain’t nothing but a man, but before I let that ol’ steam drill beat me on down, I’ll die with this hammer in my hand, lord, lord. I’ll die with this hammer in my hand.”

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