Opinion: The problem with asking Google and AI for all the answers

Knowledge is necessary for humans to think creatively. We run the risk of becoming less intelligent and more prone to false information when we entrust Google and artificial intelligence with managing our memory and thought processes. — Dreamstime/TNS

Artificial intelligence has persuaded a lot of folks that we need to radically overhaul education.

Now that chatbots can speedily retrieve information and answer complex questions, why bother memorising historical facts or quotations? Shouldn’t we instead teach kids to think critically and solve problems, and leave the grunt work to computers?

There’s a problem with these arguments: humans require knowledge to think creatively. Outsourcing our memory and cognition to Google and AI risks making us dumber and more susceptible to misinformation (including errors made by AI).

I’m no Luddite. I think it’s amazing that we have so much information on tap thanks to the Internet, while ChatGPT and other bots can act as personal tutors, which, if used judiciously, might reinforce knowledge by answering all our questions.

I also get why people might think this has devalued the ability to recite a Shakespeare sonnet or the periodic table (or studying for the bar or CFA exam, for that matter) and the important thing now is knowing where to find information.

Yet being able to recall facts is indispensable in the age of search engines and large language models, and I’m not alone in believing this.

In a seminal essay published in 2000, two years after Google was founded, nonagenarian American educator E.D. Hirsch demolished the argument that we can always just look things up.

“There is a consensus in cognitive psychology that it takes knowledge to gain knowledge,” he wrote. “Yes, the Internet has placed a wealth of information at our fingertips. But to be able to use that information ... we must already possess a storehouse of knowledge.”

Hirsch’s ideas inspired the Conservative government to overhaul England’s education system over the past 14 years to promote a more “knowledge-rich” curriculum: By the age of 9, math pupils are now required to memorise their multiplication tables up to 12, for example.

One can’t ignore the possibility that a Tory government responsible for a hard Brexit might be wrongheaded about rote learning too (though England’s relative improvement in international education rankings suggests otherwise). And one can certainly debate what kinds of facts kids should have to memorise.

However, Hirsch’s essential point that general knowledge provides a kind of “mental scaffolding” and makes us smarter (and better citizens) seems self-evident; prior knowledge helps us absorb more of what we learn and provides the fuel for creative thinking.

“The ability to ‘just Google it’ is highly dependent on what a person has stored in their long-term memory,” the influential former UK schools minister Nick Gibb said in a 2021 speech. This means literacy and numeracy remain vital even now that computers can do math and write texts faster than we can.

The suggestion we should outsource our memory to “free up” limited space for more creative thinking is based on a misconception, writes Nicholas Carr in The Shallows. Thanks to its plasticity, the brain’s long-term memory center can expand (as scientists found when they studied London taxi drivers).

“When we start using the Web as a substitute for personal memory, bypassing the inner processes of consolidation, we risk emptying our minds of their riches,” Carr wrote.

Becoming reliant on the Internet or AI is a bad idea because our working memories are only capable of processing a few new items at a time, Daisy Christodoulou, the author of Seven Myths About Education, reminds us in a recent essay. So if we encounter too much new vocabulary or information, we become overwhelmed, impairing our ability to learn.

Indeed, looking stuff up on Google often results in us not being able to recall it later – either because our brains are conditioned to think we don’t need to remember it, or because the Internet, mobile phones and social media scatter our attention, or both. We’re also likely to overestimate our intelligence, mistaking knowledge found on the Internet for our own.

(The only effective way I’ve found to recall academic papers and articles found online is to print them out, mark them with a highlighter and take copious notes.)

Another thing to bear in mind is that so-called cognitive offloading reinforces dependency on technology, which might explain why some AI companies now want us to hand off even more information, with one even calling for humans to “embrace forgetfulness”.

Of course, Cassandras have bemoaned the deleterious impacts of technology for centuries, while techno-optimists cite the pocket calculator as just one example of equipment that made certain tasks easier but did not turn our brains to mush. But as this recent paper published in Frontiers In Psychology notes, calculators have limited functionality, while AI chatbots encompass a much broader cognitive range “from general knowledge, problem-solving, emotional support, up to creative tasks”.

If students come to rely on machines not just to retrieve facts but to think for them, it might not just be memory that suffers: Cognition and creativity could atrophy too. A once steady rise in IQ scores known as the Flynn effect has begun to fade in several countries, albeit the causes are debated.

Governments are still in the early stages of thinking about AI’s role in education. I’m sure there will be benefits that augment human learning while some of the negative effects I’ve described can be mitigated.

But we don’t need to reinvent the wheel: In an era of conspiracy theories and misinformation, it’s even more vital that we humans have a firm grasp of basic facts. – Bloomberg Opinion/Tribune News Service

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