Life in the digital age: Mental Obesity and AI

Did you know that physical training actually makes your brain better and bigger? According to the popular book Brain Power (original title in Swedish: Hjärnstark) physical training can help our brains grow and cope with cognitive challenges such as stress and lack of focus.

people taking escalators

In fact, today many of us don't get enough physical exercise. We are living comfortable lives, and according to the author of the book, the lack of regular exercise makes our brain function less well. Reading it I almost get the sense that if I just hit the running track I will keep my brain fit for fight. But will exercising my muscles really be enough?

Is the digital age making our lives too comfortable?

One of the main reasons we're not moving our bodies enough is due to the technology development. We have utilized technology to increase the convenience and comfort of our daily lives. Ever since the industrial revolution we have built machines to overtake manual labor. We have cars that transport us, washing machines to do our laundry and we use escalators instead of taking the stairs. We love technology that makes life a little bit easier!

It is especially noticeable at work where many of us spend most of our time in front of a computer. Few of us have a daily schedule filled with physical activities such as climbing, running or crawling. Perhaps it is fair to say that sitting is our most common posture today?

What is the price for all this convenience? Some say that the lack of regular exercise (together with junk food) has caused overweight and obesity becoming an epidemic in the western world. A societal challenge we have to tackle.

Perhaps even worse, the outlook for the future doesn't seem that much better. In fact, we are working quite hard to become even more comfortable than we are today. Building machines that can do cognitive work for us will allow our brains to relax more too. We have, or will have, AI systems that can book our appointments, communicate for us, help us make decisions or document our family's daily life. We just have to sit back and enjoy.

Once again, the machines ability to overtake activities will be especially noticeable in the way we work. I recently talked to a CEO for a fashion company having two brands using AI systems as designers. One AI system explored the internet looking for emerging trends and based on its finding it came up with suggestions on designs. Another AI system then evaluated the designs to identify which of them are most likely to become successful in their online stores. The first human intervention in the process didn't happen until checking the designs before sending them to production. This is remarkable, and I'm impressed of what the systems are already able to do. Nevertheless, I'm also concerned about the people working in the process. It might sound like a sweet deal to only have to watch an AI work, but it also sounds very boring.

Automation and cognitive impairment

What happens when our jobs become that of a supervisor to the AI? There have been studies looking at how the usage of autopilots impact pilots in aircrafts, identifying that increased automation led to mind wandering and lack of attentiveness (read more about them here). One study even showed that automation could result in skills degeneration. In some cases, the lack of attention even led to catastrophic results. Not the result of a stimulating job.

If AI systems starts to do our thinking for us I would guess that our mental capacity will be affected, just like our muscles are under stimulated today. We probably won't even notice the change at first. Today we might take the escalators without reflecting on that the stairs would be a better choice. In the future you may ask your AI without reflecting on that you could probably remember, calculate or take the decision yourself. But where will that bring us?

Will the future epidemic be Mental Obesity? And if so, what can be done about it?

Balancing AI with cognitive ability

Mental Obesity doesn't sound so far away. Especially if you compare the snacking we do on social media apps with the snacking we do on junk food. The movie Wall-e comes to mind where the remaining humans of the world have evolved into an overweight species floating around watching screens. Still we should allow for technology to make our lives more convenient. We don't want to go back to a time before the washing machine (Imagine the horror!). Nevertheless, we need to ensure we get enough exercise, physically as well as mentally.

Today campaigns are launched, information is being spread, books are being written about the need of physical activity. To balance up the convenient lives we have built for ourselves. The fact that we need gyms to train our bodies says a lot. But let's not aim for brain building gyms in the future. Instead we should make sure to get enough cognitive training in our daily lives.

It is a question for society to tackle, from tech companies to governments. But you and I can start today! Let's see out the rest of the year with some cognitive training. Like reading a book in a genre we don't usually read. Or take a class to learn something new (what about coding, kite flying or knitting?). Or just simple everyday things like taking a new travel route to work or talking to someone we normally don't spend time with. It's time we got out of our comfort zone!

How else can we expect new technologies to shape our future societies? Read Ericsson's 10 Hot Consumer Trends 2018 today.

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