01 Nov 2020 đź‘“

Extending the mind


Very little carpentry can be done with one's bare hands, just like very little thinking can be done with one's bare mind. This paraphrasing from Intuition pumps reset my thinking about computers.

Our first tool for thinking was the ability to write things down. After that came graphs and plots. Eventually someone invented spatial memory techniques. Then spaced repetition systems were created to help us improve our memory, which eventually became programs like Anki.

I like to think of computers in many ways. One of them is to think of them as tools which extend our mind. This tool has practically infinite memory, patience, stamina, and speed. I can use those properties of this system to improve my own thinking processes.

The memory reserve of a computer means that I no longer have to remember everything. Things that I decide are not important, can be stored on a computer and retreived whenever I want. For example, I don't remember all the conversations I had with everyone in my life. That's what a chat history is for. The infinite patience of a computer system means that activities which take months to execute can be done with perfection using computers. Recording the movements of starts and planets used to take years to compile. They are now literally done within hours because of computer systems. The speed of computers means that country wide census which used to take around 4-5 years to calculate can now be done in a matter of days without mistakes that often pagued human calculations. Computer programs are also tireless. The software running on the voyager systems has been running for ~43 years now.

How do these systems extend the mind then? Our "mind" is dependent on the physical capabilities of the brain in our body. Any damage to the brain causes changes in our thinking, memory, facial recognition, and personalities too. Since our brain is a product of evolution in a 3d environment, it is also restricted on several levels. Humans can't percieve exponentiation, they cannot handle 4d spaces very well, and they need tools like UMAP to perceive high dimentional data with their own limited sense organs. Most of these limitations of perception can be solved by augmenting your senses with computer systems. In this sense, computers can improve our perception of things, just like a radio receiver suddenly allows us to percieve radio waves which are imperceptible with our natural senses. One cool example is that the interstellar black hole was actually a prediction and not an artists imagination. They wrote a paper about it too.

Other than just an individual, our society can also be thought of as a product of the human mind. Computer systems have been affecting those as well. Systems like GRE which are commonly thought to show intelligence/success are now known to only indicate wealth and nothing else. Just like those, systems designed by computer software also have biases. Online marketplaces like Uber and Amazon have inherent biases and affect society. Uber has massively reduced the volume of business in the taxi/auto industry and amazon has hit small stores disproportionately. One of the biggest effects of software in society is the increasing polarization of people caused by misinformation and addiction to perception bubbles on social media. The social dilemma is a nice introduction to the topic for the layman.

Software has human and political effects. Increasing awareness about what all software can and cannot do is the only way to combat the damage ignorance is causing. Since software extends the human mind and is a tool to be used by people, we need to be careful about who are the people using these tools. Educating ourselves about this field is the only defence we have.


These questions were asked during the signup process for the event. I've answered them to the best of my ability.