Brain unsplash

Augmenting the human brain

19 october 2023

Over the past years I worked on, and wrote about a lot of things that can be put under the umbrella of digitalisation. Digitalisation in the sense of applying digital technologies (computers and software) to create new opportunities in different areas. These areas can be process improvements, analysis possibilities or even complete new functionality (business opportunities if you want). According to some, this is putting our jobs and lives in danger. I don’t believe that is true, and would like to share my view on that here.

Part my work is bringing these technologies to places where they haven’t been used so much, or sometimes even at all, and show what digitalisation can bring. Often, the discussion starts with data, because for some reason that is the first thing a lot of people think about when we talk about digitalisation. Not a surprise, since I myself keep on telling people that data is important, data is everywhere and when you can convert data into information, it may help you do better things and get better yourself. More concrete: if you can use software and computers to gather and structure data from whatever system or process you are working on, you can convert that data into information. And information is what helps you discover flaws and opportunities that would otherwise be left unnoticed. That applies to gathering data about for example a product process and analysing it to find improvements. At the same time, it also applies to developing robots that collect information about their environment so that they can work autonomously in dangerous places or do work that is too hard for humans.

Both are part of digitalisation. Both help people make their jobs easier.  Some people may also get other jobs - instead of losing them, like we saw in other stages of the industrial evolution. An evolution that apparently consists of 4 revolutions, but that aside.

Over the past year, people have made a lot of noise also about Artificial Intelligence. With the release of ChatGPT, Dall-E and other tools, the whole world suddenly was full of ideas, as well as worries, about the power of AI. AI was going to make things possible that were not possible before. Writing prompts for Large Language Models (LLMs) like ChatGPT would become more lucrative than writing software. Writers and programmers would no longer be necessary and finally we would get self driving cars.

A large part of that was hype, as we can see now. ChatGPT and its friends can reproduce information based on data that was there already. They can also combine data (or information) in ways that haven’t been done before,  but so far, none of the things that the hype was about have really happened.

Instead, it seems that AI is, as I said from the start, just another tool in the digitalisation toolbox. A very powerful one, and one that has potential to become the overarching tool, but nonetheless still a tool.

What we know about tools is that they are useless in the hands of one who doesn’t know how to use them. A fool with a tool…

The same applies to data and information: if you don’t know how to concert data into information, and if you don’t know how to act upon information, they become useless tools.

In that sense, digitalisation and AI have something in common, apart from the fact that AI is, as we just established, just another tool in the world of digitalisation. Digitalisation is a means for us humans to get more grip on what we do - in manufacturing, in logistics, in agriculture. It augments the possibilities of our human brain - and in case of the robots I mentioned also the human body. Since AI is part of our digitalisation toolbox, it applies to that as well. AI augments the human brain, and I prefer to talk about Augmented Intelligence instead of Artificial Intelligence because of that. As I wrote some months ago, I am not afraid AI will take over the world, because current AI systems are not context aware ( The context awareness comes from humans, who either provide the context to the AI systems, or put the output of these systems into context.

This is no different from what happens with the gathering of data, and analysing it so that it can be turned into information. The human brain defines scope and context, and uses that for controlling digital systems and gathering relevant information from them. Looking at the examples I gave earlier, that can be done either directly (process analysis) or indirectly (programming robots to operate autonomously). So in essence, digitalisation and AI are both tools, tools in the hands of men. Tools that augment the human brain and make it possible to do things we never did before.

If we behave well, that can lead to literally a world of good. If we don’t, let’s be honest enough to blame the human brain, and not the tools we augmented it with.