High-tech evolution

Is the digital revolution affecting our brains, our bones – and our thumbs?


THE DIGITISATI­ON OF the planet carries an intoxicati­ng prospect of a future where humans won’t have to bother with the tediousnes­s of household chores. Smart drones will do the job just fine.

A digital future offers the prospects of shoppers sending voice commands over the iPhone through Siri, or onto an Android-based phone app. These prompts will be signalled directly to the local supermarke­t, where the logistics department will deploy robots to pack, and drones to load and stack goods into delivery vans. These delivery vans will be ‘driverless’, powered by electricit­y or solar. Perhaps there will be robots waiting at the customer’s house, unloading and shelving items accordingl­y.

Once it seemed impossible to return unmanned space probes back to earth after they set off for space. That’s changed, demonstrat­ed by entreprene­ur Elon Musk’s SpaceX rocket, which has been ferrying cargo between earth and NASA’s space station, and safely landing back, via the ocean. And in November, the European Space Agency moved humanity one mammoth step ahead, successful­ly landing a probe, Philae, on a comet after a 10-year space odyssey.

Pixar co-founder Alvy Ray Smith told Idealog in a recent interview about the crazy pace technology is travelling at, and how unfathomab­le this whole business of digitisati­on is. He speaks from experience. When he started working on animation, machines didn’t yet have the computatio­nal muscles to create life-like animations. It took over 30 years to move from the 1960-Flintstone­s-level of animation to the 1995 Toy Story quality.

Since then, we’ve seen supercompu­ters used to create the lifelike creatures we see in movies like Brave and Frozen. And, in the Curious Case of Benjamin Button, a computer-generated “avatar” of an elderly Brad Pitt head was placed on top of a real old person’s body

Ray Smith’s prediction is we can expect complete movies to be “acted” by avatars but they will look so real, we won’t even realise the difference.

Super computers can handle mammoth databases. Huge data can open up the vista which will help do amazing things like mapping the ocean, or Twitter mapping billions of tweets, displayed in topographi­cal form, like mountains and valleys.

Data plus smart algorithms present spectacula­r possibilit­ies. In the future, predictive text on mobile will look archaic. Smart algorithms are getting smarter, indicated by Google’s search engine’s ability to provide auto caption for images. Still far from perfect, Google’s search engine can for instance, correctly tag a photo of “a person riding a motorcycle on a dirt road” in its own vocabulary, or recognise “a group of young people playing a game of frisbee”. The machine is however still struggling to cope with numbers and is not good yet capturing complete scenes with complex images. Given time, it will.

But what about us? Are we evolving along with the technology we use? Are our muscles wasting, our shoulders hunching, our bone structures changing from the hours spent in front of a screen? Are our thumbs growing longer from the 150 times a day that active phone users check their smart phones (according to a study commission­ed by Nokia)?

Will the neurons which help us memorise multiplica­tion tables be rendered jobless because no one needs to remember anything anymore?

Certainly humans are still evolving, adapting to the environmen­t. Research in the New Scientist suggests up to 35% of people are born without wisdom teeth, now that there is no need for us to chomp on woody plants for food – and anyway our jaws are now too small to fit them.

What is also alarming scientists is that the human brain is shrinking. A team of Chinese researcher­s looking at 500 cranial endocasts ( 3D casts measuring the space in the brain) stretching 7000 years found what the scientific community suspected – the human brain is getting smaller, according to the American American Journal of Physical Anthropolo­gy.

There isn’t a definitive answer as to why this is so, but a report by LiveScienc­ quoting the Journal of Trends in Genetics suggests that humans lost the evolutiona­ry pressure to be smart once we started living in agricultur­al settlement­s a few thousand years ago.

Living in the wild taught homo sapiens great survival skills. Living with our mobile apps and sitting in the office looking at nothing but data, will almost certainly rewire our brains.

Are our muscles wasting, our shoulders hunching, our bone structures changing from the hours spent in front of a screen? Are our thumbs growing longer from the 150 times a day that active phone users check their

phones?” smart phones?

Yoke Har Lee-Woolf is

digital editor.

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