As the machines get smarter, might we get stupider?

As we contemplate the approach speed of The Singularity, would a comparator see the human intelligence factor as a constant against which the machine intelligence draws near with inexorable and increasing rapidity, passing finally in a cloud of dust with cartoon sound effects, vanishing like the Roadrunner into the cosmic distance? Or might the human component itself speed up or slow down: in the former instance through finding a way to go up a gear; or in the latter, by ceding mental capability on the way to a similarly inexorable dumbing down?

This is a somewhat sobering thought: not just that machines become more intelligent, artificially or otherwise, but that human cognitive development might in some important ways slow down or go into reverse. Consider a few of the ways in which, just in the space of a generation, we have come more and more to rely upon machines to do what our near ancestors might have taken for granted: doing a sum, working through a recipe, or finding our way across town.

As we push the button on the calculator, the Search key, or the Satnav, we might wonder at the mental processes we forsake so machines can do the heavy lifting. Those of us fortunate to have done mental arithmetic exercises in school may no longer be conscious of the calculation needed to master 9 x 7: the number 63 just “pops” into mind. But for those who have to work at it, it may still be possible to look up, squint, and work our way through the sequence 9, 18, 27 and so on up to 63; or perhaps go the roundabout calculation route: (10 x 7 = 70) – 7 = 63.

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