What’s the currency of Burkina Faso? Who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1963?
Unless you have an encyclopedic memory or you’re a trivia geek, chances are that you’ve had to google the answers to these questions on your smartphone. And even without these questions, you have to admit—you’d still have to use your smartphone to perform a bunch of everyday tasks. From locating a restaurant for dinner and getting a ride there, to communicating with your best friends, you’ll use your smartphone to do it.
This would sometimes lead us to ask: are our smartphones getting smarter than us?
To arrive at an answer, we should first define what intelligence means. If it’s all about knowing important information and making decisions based on the data, then yes, smartphones are getting smarter. A 2013 report by the research firm Gartner has boldly proclaimed that smartphones will be smarter than humans by 2017; yet this is followed up by this statement:
“By 2017 mobile phones will be smarter than people not because of an intrinsic intelligence, but because the cloud and the data stored in the cloud will provide them with the computational ability to make sense of the information they have so they appear smart.”
In short, smartphones are merely faster at crunching through available data to arrive at a conclusion, hence they appear as smart. But in a country like the Philippines where data can be scarce or inaccurate, this can severely limit the “intelligence” of the smartphone.
One good example is figuring out directions for commuting by Google Maps. As we’ve stated in a previous blog post, while the maps themselves are accurate, it still doesn’t have data for jeepney or tricycle routes. So when you ask the app for commuting directions, it will tell you to walk several kilometers—instead of riding a jeep or tricycle that can shorten your travel time.
Other Ways of Thinking
Of course, simply finding your way around a city or knowing facts is not the only measure of intelligence. There are many concepts in the field of human intelligence that the average smartphone AI still has to measure up to, before being considered as “smart” as a human. This include everything from the idea of self-awareness to social intelligence. So until Siri evolves into Samantha of the movie Her, then we still have a way to go.
Speaking of movie Her, the development of a better artificial intelligence (AI) is a must to create a smarter smartphone. However, there are several challenges in creating one. In an interview in the Wall Street Journal, Stephen Wolfram of Wolfram Alpha—which powers Siri—admits that while building a general-purpose, human-like AI that fulfills many roles will be hard. Hence, the general direction will be in the creation of several smaller AIs that are programmed to fulfill specific tasks well.
He also has this to say about what makes human intelligence special: “Human details, human cultural background to be identifiable as human-like intelligence as opposed to just computation.”
And speaking of culture, that’s definitely one hurdle that a smartphone AI needs to surmount. Most smartphones and computers are currently being manufactured for Western or East Asian markets, only to be localized later on for the Philippines. With our country being home to several regions with different ethnic groups and languages, we may not be getting a Pinay Siri that can accommodate all Filipinos anytime soon.
Are We Getting Dumber Instead?
But how about the flipside: are smartphones making us dumber? The short answer is: it depends.
One popularly cited example was the 2015 study by Microsoft, which showed how the average human attention span is now eight seconds—one less than the average attention span of a goldfish. Another study found a direct link with the number of times a person uses the internet or their smartphone with the likelihood of experiencing mental blunders or “cognitive failures.” This study, released by De Montfort University in 2015, was published in the journal Computers in Human Behaviour.
However, these fail to cite other studies that have more positive findings. For example, the same Microsoft study showed the human ability to multitask has improved. Meanwhile, a study published in the journal Intelligence found that computer and smartphone use can help shave off 10 years off the mental age of a senior citizen.
As these two examples show, the use of technology in moderation can even make us “smarter.” And that’s not counting intangible benefits, such as greater access to information and education, in the form of news and online classes.
In the end, there will come a time when our smartphones will be definitely smarter than us. But while we’re still inching towards that singularity, it’s best to ask ourselves—right now, do we even use technology for good? That, we think, is a better question to ask.