Are advances in technology making us dumber?

As technology advances and we rely on it more and more, do we use our brains less? Is artificial intelligence replacing the real thing?

21/05/21

Diane Hall

As technology advances and we rely on it more and more, do we use our brains less? Is artificial intelligence replacing the real thing?


I remember, in the eighties, teachers banning the use of calculators in classes or exams. They believed that we wouldn’t use mental arithmetic to find answers when they could be determined by pressing a few buttons, which wouldn’t be a measure of our mathematical intelligence.


In the thirty years that followed, the world changed significantly, with regards to technology, to the point that it almost underpins our every action.


So, if more of our daily routine, learning methods and leisure activities are carried out by technology rather than fuelled by brain power, are we becoming less intelligent as a result?


There are more than a few trains of thought on this subject; the more I look into it and ask people’s opinions, the more I realise there’s no one answer to this question.


For instance, you could argue that the development of technology doesn’t stimulate independent thought. The information we consume today is handed to us on a plate; we don’t need to search through an entire library or read whole books to find the one golden nugget of information we’re after—we can simply ask Google a question and the answer to this (and only this answer) will appear. But then, how do we broaden our minds in the digital age? How do we discover new things when search engines rely on us already knowing what we want to know?

People looking at their phones instead of interacting.

People looking at their phones instead of interacting.

Another thought is that we aren’t becoming dumber per se, we simply adapt the information we learn to help us navigate the world of today and all its challenges. Thirty years ago, I may have used mental arithmetic; faced with the need to add up some amounts, I’ll turn to the calculator app on my phone in 2021. On the flipside, however, back then I wouldn’t have needed to know how to download and use apps, or how to change their settings, to swipe back on forth on a screen, to program my phone so that it supports certain aspects of my daily routine. What skills I may have side-lined or made redundant have been replaced by new skills of a completely different ilk.


In the past, my memory was slightly better (though any recent deterioration may also be due to age!); I could remember my landline phone number by heart, and those of my closest friends, the doctors and dentists, etc. I don’t need to remember numbers nowadays, as my phone has that responsibility. That function in my mind is obsolete. My short-term memory today is shot as I juggle so many things from when I wake to falling asleep that there’s simply no room to store long threads of detail. The same technology could probably help me with this issue; however, I don’t feel I have the time to input the information…


If people want to learn something, it’s actually now easier than ever to find information on any subject. You don’t need a university education to read up on a topic nowadays, which makes knowledge infinitely more accessible. However, we are, as humans, naturally lazy. Technology, for some, has replaced the need for them to learn anything at all; they can rely on Google or their iPhone to provide them with all they need to get through their day. But hasn’t that always been the case? I remember, at school in the eighties, that there were some people who weren’t the slightest bit interested in widening their horizons or opening their mind; technology hasn’t really affected this.


We can’t just characterise a lack of knowledge surrounding today’s technology as lacking intelligence. Most people in their seventies wouldn’t know their way around technology as well as someone a quarter of their age, but they’re far from dumb or unintelligent—you could argue that an older person’s knowledge, overall, is much superior. Technology is not the only measure of someone’s worth or capacity of intelligence. What about general life experience and a career spanning fifty years? How does that compare to the intelligence of a 17 year old who may not have even begun to dip their toe into the world of work nor lived long enough to know everything about everything?

Woman using laptop

Woman using laptop

There’s no doubt that technology makes many aspects of our lives more convenient, and it’s also correct to say that some physical/mental skills we may have once used have today disappeared because of our reliance on the microchip. However, this is separate to someone’s level of intelligence. We’re not getting dumber as technology moves on, year by year. Yes, we may have to adapt and learn new things to be able to use it, but there’s a huge, huge wealth of knowledge and experience to be gained in life that’s not related to technology. Common sense, practical skills, problem-solving, for example…the things that make us human. Babies, in 100 years from now, won’t need a computer to tell them not to touch a boiling kettle. They’ll do it once, and the pain receptors in their brain will ensure they never do it again. They’ll learn not to repeat that mistake without any support from Microsoft, Apple or Google…

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