Although much of the current discussion about AI displacement of human cognition is centered around white-collar job displacement in the global economy, this is not the only sphere in which displacement is occurring.
People, as individuals, are allowing AI algorithms to displace their need to think more generally. As far back as 2009, Patricia Greenfield, a researcher from the Children’s Digital Media Center, found that technology was producing a decline in the human faculties of critical thinking and analysis. Human cognition, especially the ability to think critically and independently, is implicated not only in individual assessments of truth or falsity, but in the totality of all the decisions that make up people’s daily lives, and the internal structuring of those lives.
The possibility that the larger part of humanity might allow its overall cognitive functions to ultimately be displaced by AI has consequences for human existence that are far more fundamental than the problem of AI narrowing the possibilities for employment. AI displacement in this area could gradually lead humanity to de-evolve its higher functions.
Active, mindful human cognition is a central part of what makes humans who we are, a critical piece of human consciousness as individuals. Personal presence, the sense of being awake and self-aware, interactive relationships with the outer environment, and human agency all depend on it. People’s ability to make those little life decisions for themselves empowers them to evolve and guide themselves within their physical and social environments into who they will become.
Automation in this area turns what were once personal decisions into non-decisions, instead setting people by default into routines and habits that are both structured around and pre-fabricated by machines. It leads unwitting people to act in ways that objectively make them appear as automatons. Everyone has seen people obediently swiping away at their smartphones every time they receive a notification. To someone on the outside of this phenomenon, they appear to be reacting instinctively and unquestioningly, robotically, to the machine’s incessant calls for them to tend to it.
Another example is people’s tendency to become overreliant on GPS software, to the point of following its instructions blindly, uncritical of whether or not those instructions actually make sense. Most of the time, GPS directions are correct, but not always, and drivers have ended up in all sorts of strange places as a result. More importantly, relying on GPS technology to substitute for the native human spatial awareness function tends to render that function unnecessary over time, thus weakening it. Orienting oneself spatially with respect to the physical surroundings is not a meaningless task, but a central feature of human perception.
Cognitive automation in the personal sphere also sets up invisible constraints on human minds, bounding people’s perceptions of what is possible within the artificial limitations of what a given machine is programmed to do. For example, a person is trying to do a task on a computer but runs into a software glitch, but it doesn’t occur to him to go around the machine and finish whatever he needed to do without it: if he can’t fix the glitch, he stops and gives up, and the action goes undone.
People are taught to obey authority, and the Internet, its apps, and its programmed constraints have taken on an air of authority, setting up artificial boundaries that many people are hesitant to cross. Some people, upon encountering such a boundary, don’t recognize it as artificial, and don’t have the instinct to step outside the technology to finish whatever it was they had originally set out to do.
To the extent that people remove themselves from the loop of their own decision process, ceding that authority to apps and personal assistant software, they are displacing themselves with AI in ways far more fundamental than anything economic. To deprecate personal cognition in favor of an AI is essentially the same as a decision to subcontract out the most critical aspects of human existence.
Those who might wish to opt out of such technologies are often confronted with arguments about the harmlessness of the technologies of yesteryear to the human sense of being. The first example that usually comes up in this context is the invention of the washing machine, but it isn’t the same thing. Using a machine to perform a tedious mechanical task is very different from allowing a substitute mind to decide, or even to invisibly influence, how we should structure our days, what route we should take to work, what temperature our house should be, who we should date, or who we should hire. This changes the purpose of automation from performing what many would consider meaningless tasks to making decisions about what, where, when, and how we will do the things that constitute the stuff of our daily lives, decisions that should be ours alone.
The question is, how many among us would gladly steer clear of washing machines if their repeated use exacted a harsh cognitive price? The answer, it appears, is fewer than one might think. It all depends on what we value more.