IEEE Technology and Society Magazine - June 2016 - 30

Kaku reports that "engineers
are currently working to create
a 'robo-doc,' which will appear
on your wristwatch or wall screen
a nd g ive you ba sic med ic a l
advice with 99 percent accuracy
almost for free." The technology
will "reduce unnecessary visits to
the doctor [and] eliminate costly false alarms" since it will have
access to "the databanks of the
world's leading medical centers
[with] the latest scientific information." It will "make it effortless to
have regular conversations with a
doctor." Also on the horizon are
robo-lawyers answering "all common legal questions" and robo-secretaries "that can plan vacations,
trips, and dinners" [1, p. 215]. He
cites Harvard's celebrated psychologist and best-selling author, Steven
Pinker, who says that he "would
pay a lot for a robot that would put
away the dishes and run simple
errands" [1, p. 217] and recounts
his visit to the M.I.T. Media Laboratory where "Everywhere you
look you see futuristic, high-tech
devices designed to make our lives
more interesting, enjoyable, and
convenient" [1, p. 227]. He interviews Cynthia Breazeal, creator of
Huggable, a teddy bear-like robot
that can bond with children and
might "become a tutor, babysitter, nurse's aide, or a playmate"
[1, p. 227]. Nexi, another of Dr.
Breazeal's robots, is designed to
bond with adults. Elderly patients
in nursing homes love it. Once they
got used to it, "they would kiss it,
talk to it, and miss it when it had to
leave." (Also - Jibo (pronounced
jee-bo), is Breazeal's latest social
robot, described as "friendly, helpful, and intelligent, who "just can't
wait to meet ... you.") [1, p. 227].
The takeaway here is the conventional wisdom. When technology does things for us, when it
makes anything more convenient,

30

that's good. If Huggable robots
can eliminate the inconvenience
of dealing with human tutors,
babysitters, nurse's a ides, or
playmates, that's good. If elderly
patients in nursing homes can be
conveniently fooled into bonding
with robots, kissing them, talking
to them, and missing them when
they leave, that's good. When
robo - docs/ law yers/secret a r ies
make life more efficient, meaning
we get what we want with less hassle, instantly, on demand, that's
good. If technology eliminates the
drudge of doing such mundane
tasks as washing the dishes, or
running simple errands, freeing up
Dr. Pinker to focus on more important stuff, much like calculators
sweep away the tedium of calculating to allow students to focus on
the higher, more important, mathematical concepts, that's good. In
the future, just as today's students
may offload more and more of
what was once considered more
important mathematical concepts
onto calculators and their software
progeny, if smart pills can make us
smarter without the work of making our own neural connections
smarter, if future students can
simply upload (or is it download?)
calculus into their brains, and get
an A, that's good.
But is it good? If that smart pill
substitutes for the efforts our brains
demand to sustainably develop
the neural circuits that enhance
cognition, those circuits will not
get developed. The result will be
diminished, not enhanced, cognition rendering us more and more
dependent on smart pills much as
vast numbers of students today
addictively rely on Adderall to pump
them up for that calculus test, or
paper due tomorrow.
Relying on smart pills to do the
mental work mirrors the loss of the
need for internal mental navigaIEEE Technology and Society Magazine

tion effort thanks to our increased
dependency on GPS. That dependency not only dissipates our ability
to find our way without the technology, research indicates that failure
to form cognitive maps may, in fact,
shrink the hippocampus creating
an increased risk of dementia. As
neuroscientist, Veronique Bohbot,
proposed in an interview with physicist cum journalist, Dr. Alex Hutchinson, "'society is geared in many
ways toward shrinking the hippocampus'... 'In the next twenty years,
I think we're going to see dementia
occurring earlier and earlier'" [2],
[3]. Then again, we needn't be overly concerned about shrinking hippocampi leading to early dementia. In
the event they shrink too much from
disuse, an unintended consequence
of, say, rapidly smartening homes,
technology will come to the rescue.
As Kaku points out, artificial hippocampi are on the horizon, waiting in
the wings to replace any shrunken
native versions [1, p. 110].
While virtually every technology
can be used smartly to enhance
our lives, with apps as symbiotic
enablers as Howard Gardner and
Katie Davis argue in their new book,
The App Generation, there is always
a dark side to the equation. "The
plurality of apps," Gardner and
Davis point out "and the uses to
which they're currently put, lean
strongly in the direction of dependence, not enablement" [4]. While
the science and technology elite will
make excellent use of brain enhancing technology - as some students
use calculators to focus deeply on
mathematical concepts beyond the
reach of today's technics - most
will fall into the trap of dissipative
dependency by letting technology's
apps do more and more of the
work. (Kaku, in a Feb. 8, 2014, New
York Times interview on the topic
of reading, began his response with
"For bedtime reading, I usually curl
∕

june 2016



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