Machines smart, people smarter (still)
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Machines smart, people smarter (still)

Should students be encouraged to put their smart phones away?

Should students be encouraged to put their smart phones away?Credit:Not for syndication

It's difficult to imagine a human invention that will ever supplant the personal phone. Many times more powerful than the computers that sent men to the moon 50 years ago, it has made such amazing advances that it is now an indispensible part of our lives. If only we could be so sure of comparable advances in human physiology.

At least we have been getting smarter.  In fact, over the past century, the average Australian IQ has dramatically increased. Better nutrition, healthcare and habits, and the complexity of modern life has been good for our brains.

But as Liam Mannix reports today, that improvement has stopped in its tracks, and a mysterious trend has emerged. In Norway, Denmark, Finland, Britain and France, IQ scores that once kept rising now seem to be dropping. Australia is not part of this study, but there is no reason to believe we would be tracking any differently.

There is no definitive culprit, but the mobile phone is under suspicion.  Clearly, a machine that ''thinks'' for us might, on the face of it, make us think less. As Mannix reports, there is a ''Google Effect'' and it has taken hold. How many of us still pull out a street directory, or even plot a unfamiliar journey by use of a map? Some old party tricks no longer carry the same potency. Sporting stats? The 45 US presidents? The computer makes a nerd of anyone who wants to be one, while saving countless nerd training hours.

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But the evidence is a long way from being unequivocal. The strongest of a tentative set of conclusions about the IQ trends is that our brains are being changed by living in the modern world, not softened by technology.

Were we to test people today using IQ tests from the 1950s, 75 per cent of the population would be classified as gifted.

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To cope with this, IQ tests are regularly made progressively harder. The same increase in IQs over the last century has happened in nearly every other developed nation.

But can we trust our devices?

It's creepy how after a friendly chat while a phone lays idle, advertisements pop up related to whatever has been talked about. There is the prospect of the mics in our phones, which are only supposed to switch on when we utter the trigger words "Hey Siri" or "Okay Google", listening to us unbeknownst.

But while the technology certainly exists, Facebook, Apple and Google have repeatedly denied any suggestion their software or hardware eavesdrops.

How much do we trust our devices? A machine will never offer us the definitive answer to that question.

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