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What If We Are Outsourcing Our Brains to the Cloud?

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When I was a kid, I used to think that my dad knew everything. I still do. I can ask him anything about anything – the distance from earth to the sun, the way Vercingetorix valiantly fought Julius Caesar during the Gallic Wars, why tomatoes are red and cucumbers green, why I like chocolate but not spinach, how to translate the word “serendipity” in French, who originally wrote Antigone, and why birds are not getting electrocuted when they sit on power lines.

If any of those questions intrigued you, it’s very unlikely you’ll ask a friend. Instead, you’ll say you have it on the tip of your tongue, then you’ll probably pull your mobile phone and ask Google or Wikipedia. In the process, you’ll have just missed an opportunity to make your brain work and train your memory. It’s interesting to notice we avoid pushing ourselves too much to remember things, even though it would be the most natural training for our brains, but instead purchase apps and video games such as Dr. Kawashima’s Brain Training to get smarter – or maybe just to avoid a total deliquescence without cutting too much on our tech time.

Maybe it started with the pocket calculator. Some say it all started with the GPS. Most people can’t go places without it anymore. Then there was music, with iTunes managing our entire library, and people starting to listen to one song or another from an artist they didn’t know much about, based on the algorithmic recommendation of the software. Long gone were the days of building a collection of CDs and remembering all the details about each album and members of a band. David Brooks, who is pretty conservative, calls it the externalisation of the musical taste. Sounds like we are basically outsourcing our brains to the cloud.

And personal assistants such as Siri, Google Now and Cortana are making it easier and easier to not use our brains too much. Our smartphones are smart, so we don’t need to be. Some even worry it might impact the cognitive advance of our species in a negative way.

I respectfully disagree.

All those applications are freeing up precious energy and time so we can focus on what matters most in our lives. In the same way mechanisation has been freeing people up from physical and low-skilled jobs in some countries, giving them more time to spend on education, personal relationships, and their hobbies, I believe that ‘outsourcing’ technologies give us more opportunities to be creative and imaginative, to fulfil our lives, and to be happier overall.

Rote memorisation and calculus, while both impressive skills that I respect, are not the most valuable type of ‘thinking’ human beings are capable of, and certainly not, in my humble opinion, the best use we can make of the complex computers are brains are. We’ve been outsourcing lots of the data processing to computers for years now, and it has allowed us to to focus on the creative thinking, the bold concepts, the crazy tests and trials, the out-of-the-box ideas only a fluid, non pre-programmed brain like the ones we have are able to come up with.

Of course, there’s the whole debate about strong AI, and how robots might take over the world one day if we let them become too intelligent. Even Stephen Hawking, one the persons I admire the most, warns that “The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race. Maybe. Maybe not. But we’re still so, so far from having to ask ourselves that question, and there’s still so much to discover and to improve that it would be a shame to stay paralysed for fear of what might or might not happen in several hundreds of years.

The future is in our hands, and if we cannot control all the outcomes of the current research and development we’re working on at the moment, we can definitely impact the direction humanity is taking. In my opinion, a future where people have infinite access to super-relevant and customised information, can solve complex equations in seconds, know exactly who’s the right person to ask a question to and how to contact them, and can build on the work of our generation, supported by the processing power of intelligent computers, is an interesting direction.

And this is where we seem to be going, so better make the most out of it.

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