The Financial Express

Rambling robots & scrambling youths

| Updated: August 25, 2019 20:08:41

Rambling robots & scrambling youths

In a powerful piece relating robotic capacities, among other "digital revolution" features, to the human being's brain evolution, Jay N. Giedd observed more than half a dozen years ago the pivotal place of youths ("The digital revolution and adolescent brain evolution," Journal of Adolescent Health, vol. 51, 2012, pp. 101-5): though hardly an even contest, he elevated the creeping Fourth Industrial Revolution effects in elevating the intellectual capacities of our youths to a point unimaginable otherwise. We learn how our seemingly straying, even graying youth carry a punch that might not score a technical knockout victory against robots, but that it will be (a) telling enough, and (b) the very spark that drives programmed robots to rise, through new capability thresholds, into a symbiotic relationship with the youth, if only to succeed in the future.

Those observations have drawn upon not just the human being, serving as the most adaptable Homo sapiens version than all previous types (such as the Neanderthals), but the group both most receptive to artificial intelligence (AI) contraptions and most receptive to monitoring the unravelling "digital revolution," the youth. This group has collectively raised the Homo sapiens intellectual thresholds in unprecedented ways: not only have its mindset capabilities matched, even surpassed, the physical "survival of the fittest" predicament of yesteryears, but how they have also invented and reinvented communications expected from any human-machine combination, especially as the man-machine contestation escalates in complexities and comprehensiveness.

At stake is the human mind, consisting of a fixed number of brain cells from birth (thus exposed to being drowned out or burned up). Owing to the expanding gray-matter, these take an inverted U-curve trail in the first three decades of life, but myelination of the even more finite white-matter (a process of a nerve-surrounding plasma layerfacilitating communication between nerves), enhances functional efficacy, remaining most potent during adolescence when life-serving "connectivity" is made: "connectivity" with increasingly many more items is now possible in the long human passage than was originally possible, when the jungle-civil society transition demanded all brain attention for food-searches and security. It is this adaptability human function, more than any other inherent growth in intelligence that could make our next generation youth the most advanced at that life-stage than any before them. Already that youth spends upwards of one-third of his/her life dealing with digital devices. As Geidd informs us, it took 38 hours for the radio to fully "penetrate" society (that is, find at least 50 million consumers), the telephone 20 years, the television 13 years, world-wide-web (WWW) 4 years, Facebook 3.6 years, Twitter 3 years, iPads 2 years, and Google+ 88 days, that speed matched by the enormity of information acquired.

How the new "digital revolution" contraptions begin the "social" relationship ultimately form the underlying issue of interest. What we already know about the human brain are that (a) it does not grow with age, but becomes more specialised; (b) it has enormous capacities to adapt, known as "plasticity" to specialists, and distance parents as new actors, or "peers," encroach that individual's "influence zone." Geidd postulates the size of the adolescent's neo-cortex (part of the cerebral cortex responsible for sensory perception, motor commands, spatial reasoning, conscious thought, and most important, language formation), also informs us as to the length, breadth, and depth of his/her social networks. He therefore concludes an individual makes between 150 and 230 meaningful social relations in his/her life. He builds upon Dunbar's number: Robin Dunbar's set his cognitive limit to the number of meaningful relationship a person can have, based upon his 1980s tests to understand Machiavellian Intelligence (or Social Brain) Hypothesis that the larger the society, the larger the brain, in multiples of 3 (seen as expanding concentric circles), with the most "intimate" friends for Dunbar being capped at 5, then proposing 15 to be "sympathetic" friends (a multiple of 3), with about 50 being "close" friends, and 150 being just "friends" (an argument historically supported by the typical 150-size of the original bands and tribes). Geidd extends the friendship circle to 230, given the advent of faster communicative contraptions.

Turning to the more focused question as to how the "digital revolution" becomes a "social revolution" not only concentrates on the youth, but also, and most concertedly, on who belongs in each adolescent's "society." Here, of course, a number of hypotheses may be tested. Taking the exceptional case of the 18th century Austrian musician, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, the earlier one is exposed to a new skill, the more likely that person will reach unusual depths with that skill: as a 3-year-old, he watched his 7-year-old sister, Maria Anna, or Nannerl, practising keyboards with their father, at 4, he began learning himself, and by his fifth year, he was not only fluent, but also composing music. Here is a message parents may keep in mind should they want their children to shine. In turn, the "society" Mozart cultivated was largely composed of other practitioners or consumers of that skill, music. If, however, the child undergoes broad-based schooling from that early age, his/her "society" will also broaden: a business father grooming his son to take over after him might create a tycoon, but one less socially diversified to adequately function in the increasingly complex communities we live in these days.

These arguments can be extended to the other extreme: the less educated the individual, the more likely that individual will succumb to an upbringing not necessarily vetted by that community's standards, in turn getting exposed to a limited (and often questionable) "friendship circle;" the more slanted the information, the greater likelihood it will be angled towards dangerous information, as is being exemplified by educationally half-baked populist youths in western countries today, or jihadi converts the world over, if the Islamic State experiences are any guide; and any distorted information amid the "digital revolution," which allows contraptions to be tailored to rob (through cyberattacks), disrupt (for example, by programming the city's electric gird to malfunction), or play the old game of superseding the human being, this time with artificial intelligence (through genetic engineering or DNA manipulation), gravely distorts the society.

Society has never been free from robbery, disruptions (including murders and warfare), and the survival-of-the-fittest human instincts. Yet, that it has progressed so much in so little ionic time (for example, from 38 years for radio "penetration" to 88 days for Google+), demands we focus on the positive "social revolution" outcomes of "digital revolution." Enhancing education is an obvious, no-brainer starter: every government should provide this comprehensively and freely since even exorbitant current costs predict handsome future benefits. Before the teenager shifts in any single direction through his/her education, society could help "nudge" him/her towards more lucrative, or social demanded, arenas with plenty of inducements, thus preparing today's youths for predictable future exigencies. Finally, enhancing transparency would go a long way as part of the society's "culture" to thwart any "extremist" misdirection of the "digital revolution."

These three steps are not new, but combined under the circumstances they have been, that is, the unfolding "digital revolution" distorting as much of society as enhancing it, that too, amid a global context of extremism and shaming, they pose an urgent call for any policy-maker's and educator's attention. If not, even if "digital revolution" is not utilised to create mayhem, the "social revolution" might be riddled with too much unrest from wider inequalities for any decent human being to survive. That is the faith associated with what we call "civilisations": to minimise inequity, because once the formula is lost, extinction can only be a step away.

Dr. Imtiaz A. Hussain is Professor & Head of the Department of Global Studies & Governance at Independent University, Bangladesh.

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