Snowmobile or bicycle?

Complement or substitute?

March 23, 2023 — August 7, 2023

Figure 1

Related concept: comfort traps.

My mental model for enabling technology is always in reference to snowmobiles (Pelto 1973), which are a technology that greatly aids people in the Arctic to get around in winter, and yet had hollowed out and replaced traditional ways of life. Recently in a conversation with Viv Weiley I found reason to also recall an aside from ?Steve Jobs? that the PC should be a bicycle for the mind. I am interested in knowing what is more bicycle for the mind (democratising, enabling even underdogs) and what is a snowmobile (cementing disparities, increasing returns to incumbents).

More standard phrasing might be (Susskind and Susskind 2018):

There are two possible futures for the professions. Both of these rest on technology. The first is reassuringly familiar to most professionals—it is simply a more efficient version of what we have today. In this future, professionals of many different types use technology, but largely to streamline and optimize their traditional ways of working. In the language of economists, technologies “complement” them in these activities. The second future is a different proposition. Here, increasingly capable systems and machines, either operating alone or designed and operated by people who look quite unlike doctors and lawyers, teachers and accountants, and others, gradually take on more of the tasks that we associate with those traditional professionals. New technologies instead, in the words of economists, “substitute” for professionals in these activities.

For now, and in the medium term, we anticipate that these two futures will be realized in parallel. As we do today, we will continue to see examples of both uses of technology. In the long run, however, we expect that the second future will dominate. Through technological progress, we will find new and more efficient ways to solve the sorts of important problems that, traditionally, only very particular types of professionals have been able to tackle.

Life on the Grid (part 1) - by Roger’s Bacon

[…C]omplexity scientist David Krakauer makes a distinction between complementary cognitive artifacts—technologies that make us more intelligent after using them—and competitive cognitive artifacts (if you can’t guess what these do then maybe you’ve been using them too much). The canonical example of a competitive artifact is a calculator: repeated usage leaves you worse at mental arithmetic than you were before. Contrast this with an abacus, which can have quite the opposite effect: expert users can eventually develop such a high-fidelity mental model that they no longer even need to use the physical abacus, and are able to maintain their enhanced arithmetic skills without it.

Here’s that quote::

Harris: What else would you put on this list of complementary cognitive artifacts?

Krakauer: The other example that I’m very enamored of is the abacus. The abacus is a device for doing arithmetic in the world with our hands and eyes. But expert abacus users no longer have to use the physical abacus. They actually create a virtual abacus in the visual cortex. And that’s particularly interesting, because a novice abacus user like me or you thinks about them either verbally or in terms of our frontal cortex. But as you get better and better, the place in the brain where the abacus is represented shifts, from language-like areas to visual, spatial areas in the brain. It really is a beautiful example of an object in the world restructuring the brain to perform a task efficiently—in other words, by my definition, intelligently.

Maps are another beautiful example of this. Let’s imagine we don’t know how to get around a city. Over the course of centuries or decades or years, many people contribute to the drawing of a very accurate map. But if you sit down and pore over it, you can memorize the whole damn thing. And you now have in your mind’s eye what it took thousands of people thousands of years to construct. You’ve changed the internal wiring of your brain, in a very real sense, to encode spatial relations in the world that you could never have directly experienced. That’s a beautiful complementary cognitive artifact. And then some mechanical instruments: You could say that as you become more and more familiar with an armillary sphere or an astrolabe or a sextant or a quadrant, you have to use it less and less. So you build a kind of a simulation in your brain of the physical object. And at some point, in some cases, you can dispense with the object altogether.

Harris: The other shoe drops: There is another kind of cognitive artifact that you want to talk about. Tell us about the downside to all our cultural creativity.

Krakauer: There is another kind of cognitive artifact. Consider a mechanical calculator or a digital calculator on your computer. It augments your intelligence in the presence of the device. So my phone and I together are really smart, right? But if you take that away, you’re certainly no better than you were before, and you are probably worse, because you probably forgot how to do long division, because you’re now dependent on your phone to do it for you.

Now, I’m not making a normative recommendation here. I’m not saying we should take people’s phones away and force them to do long division. I’m simply pointing out there is a difference. And the difference is that what I call competitive cognitive artifacts don’t so much amplify human representational ability as replace it. Another example that everyone is very enamored of now, rightly, is machine learning. We have this beautiful example recently of AlphaGo, a deep learning neural network being trained to beat an extraordinary ninth-dan Go player. That machine is basically opaque, even to its designers, and it replaces our ability to reason about the game. It doesn’t augment it.

Another example would be the automobile. This is one of my favorites, because automobiles clearly allow us to move very quickly over an even surface. And we are utterly dependent on them, especially here in the Southwest, where I live. But if you took my car away, I would be no better than I was before, and probably I would be worse, because I would be unfit. I had been so accustomed to sitting in the car for a long time. Moreover, it’s a dangerous artifact, because it kills so many people. So the car is a beautiful example of a competitive cognitive artifact that we have accepted, because its utility value is so high, even though it actually compromises our ability to function without it.

Further reading:

LLMs can clearly be great learning tools. See, e.g.

1 References

Carter, and Nielsen. 2017. Using Artificial Intelligence to Augment Human Intelligence.” Distill.
Chen, Wang, and Wang. 2011. Effect of Mental Abacus Training on Working Memory for Children.” Journal of the Chinese Institute of Industrial Engineers.
Danaher. 2018. Toward an Ethics of AI Assistants: An Initial Framework.” Philosophy & Technology.
Krakauer, Page, and Erwin. 2009. Diversity, Dilemmas, and Monopolies of Niche Construction. The American Naturalist.
Métraux. 1956. “A Steel Axe That Destroyed a Tribe, as an Anthropologist Sees It.” The UNESCO Courier: A Window Open on the World.
Norman. 1991. Cognitive Artifacts.” In Designing Interaction: Psychology at the Human-Computer Interface. Cambridge Series on Human-Computer Interaction, No. 4.
Pelto. 1973. The snowmobile revolution: technology and social change in the Arctic.
Spector, Link to external site, and Ma. 2019. Inquiry and critical thinking skills for the next generation: from artificial intelligence back to human intelligence.” Smart Learning Environments.
Susskind, and Susskind. 2018. The Future of the Professions.” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society.
Wang, Geng, Hu, et al. 2013. Numerical Processing Efficiency Improved in Experienced Mental Abacus Children.” Cognition.