Creeping virus of neurononsense

More than the usual number of distractions well up today, just as I was hoping to concentrate my cognitive resources on compiling a proposal for a pharmaceutical company. A happier diversion is my wife’s birthday today; less exalted is the mess our cat has made in her box. A variety of weekend resolutions remain sullenly unresolved and, even as I type these words, the morning routine is further upset by the cat’s vomiting on the carpet behind me.

And now I see from this morning’s Financial Times that somebody who has written a book called Neuroscience for Leadership is claiming that clever thinking requires fewer choices and that “a morning routine helps conserve your creative powers”. The author of this brazen and unsubstantiated puff is clearly of the view that serious decision-making is a zero-sum game and that this now “turns out to be backed up by neuroscience”.

Perhaps it’s because the day is young and the distractions imposed by thoughts of birthdays, business proposals and feline excretions are not being allowed to intrude that I remain able to spot two problems where mortals with less focused “cognitive resources” might see only the bullshit. Because, critically in the context of all this nonsense spotting, this bullshit is apparently backed up by neuroscience.

Er, actually, not.

Now, it may be that the book under review is packed with the neuroscientific evidence that somehow, inexplicably, totally escapes mention in the review. But the author is indirectly quoted as saying that cognitive resources are depleted as important and/or creative decisions are made – a claim that can only sensibly be understood in the very general sense that one tires from mental exertion, as with physical exertion, over time. But to equate this declaration with the careful calibrations of focused scientific measurement, as if truly creative thinking were not far more about the nuances of qualitative considerations, is impossible to quantify, if not downright risible.

How likely is it that President Obama’s determination to keep his wardrobe choices to grey or blue minimise his chances of a later, less-than-optimal decision about invading somewhere? Might it be more likely that a little early decision-making about something less substantial might serve as a kind of cognitive bending and stretching: a neural warm-up for the tasks ahead?

Instead of deploying the putative powers of neuroscience to every claim we wish to make about any and everything, might it make more sense to think something through a bit more carefully before engaging mouths or keyboards? Might that business proposal be better served by sharpening one’s wits ahead of time on some lazy thinking in the morning newspaper?

Yes, I would submit, but without the evidence of neuroscience to back up my view. The only sure thing is that the proposal will be delayed by an hour.

AI pace is picking up, and with it the anxiety

As a variation on Moore’s famous law about mankind’s computer processing power doubling every 18 – 24 months, it certainly seems to be true that the numbers of commentators and words being written on the subject of Artificial Intelligence are increasing at a similarly fantastic rate.

And it is no longer just the computer geeks, philosophers and neuroscientists who meet at highbrow conferences who are doing all the talking. Increasingly well-informed, and downright entertaining, commentary is turning up on general interest websites like WaitButWhy, while self-styled science comedian Brian Malow – and I first rendered the man’s name with the Freudian typo “Brain” – recently reflected in a light-hearted way on a fear that has always been a mainstay of science fiction. In essence: should we fear the consequences when the power of Artificial Intelligence outstrips our own?

Looking at humanity’s history of interactions with species that are unable to defend against our own predations, it is easy to see how we might project onto a superior intelligence the assumption of malignant intent. But is predatory behaviour necessarily a function of a creature’s intelligence, rather than a manifestation of other, baser characteristics? It would seem more natural to suppose that it would be part of the definition of a higher intelligence that it would not default to a malignant desire to eliminate any less intelligent creature, but rather work to preserve and enable intelligence where it found it. That would certainly seem a reasonable extrapolation from our own species, where strong correlations exist between violent impulses on the one hand, and their greater indulgence by the less intelligently inclined, on the other.

A more likely worry is what the AI community refers to as the Bostrom’s paperclips scenario, whereby an AI programme designed to optimise the manufacture of paperclips scales up to consume the universe in hoarding resources needed to make and distribute paperclips. Except that in such a world we would surely fall victim to a host of AIs, all programmed to optimise the manufacture of any and all things, with the inevitable consequence of provoking an Armageddon of office supply wars.

Multi-task myth could do with some kicking

Anyone who has been put on hold during a live conversation while the other person, index finger raised, is distracted by some vital e-Task, will have had cause to wonder upon the phenomenon of multi-tasking. Is it a revelation of superior intelligence that your interlocutor really can maintain a conversation with you while checking that that a text message got through while confirming to the home front that they’ll be home by six? Or is it simply a thoughtless power display suggesting that you can suck up the wait while they shift back and forth amidst the trivial pursuits of their little day?

Amidst all the commentary about multi-tasking, a distinction often ignored is between different types of tasks – those that require little or no conscious neural processing, like walking, and those that do, such as focusing on a chess game while reciting poetry. Anyone who claims they can combine elements of the latter is not only unlikely to be strong on either chess or poetry, but research has shown that performance in each one markedly diminishes while both are being attempted at the same time.

What’s more, it seems that high multi-taskers might even possess smaller brain density in the anterior cingulate cortex, the area running our emotional and cognitive control functions. The essence of the correlation needs further study: is it that multi-taskers find their brains shrinking, or is their appetite for multi-tasking a symptom of having smaller brains in the first place? Either way, the news is not good for multi-taskers.

And we shouldn’t be complacent about the potential for multi-tasking even among those of us who are performing low-processing activities. American president Lyndon Johnson famously derided a fellow president who was “so dumb he couldn’t fart and chew gum at the same time.” In his defence, perhaps the victim of LBJ’s wit might have suggested he wanted to concentrate fully and with focus upon the full sensual pleasure of each activity, without distraction.