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 LiveScience.com 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