Artificial intelligence is becoming so ingrained in our society that many of us can’t imagine living without it. The most interesting thing about this phenomenon is that because major tech companies have seamlessly enabled AI in many of the apps we use every day, we don’t even realize how much we depend on it. This raises the question: Is AI hurting us more than it is helping us?
Below, I’ll examine how AI frees us from the mental responsibility of having to research or remember details. I’ll also explore some potential tactics to counteract the effects by explicitly challenging our brains — even when we don’t have to.
You don’t really need to know where you are anymore
The first experience many of us likely had with AI was following GPS directions. The device calculated all of the transit details in seconds — before we even had time to think about which drink to order after it had carefully guided us to the nearest Starbucks.
Researchers say we learn how to get places using two methods. The first involves creating a spatial map inside your brain, which is constructed as you gradually learn how the streets relate to each other. That technique allows you to determine how to reach places even if you haven’t visited them yet. The second is a method of using landmarks and identifying actions to take at each one. It’s based on your own experience or the information someone told you. While using the second method, you might say to yourself, “Take a right at that horse statue, a left at the vintage clothing store, then you’ll see the theater on your right.”
However, thanks to GPS devices and similar gadgets, we no longer have to train our brains to get around using either of those techniques. Instead of observing your surroundings or recalling how a person instructed you to get somewhere, you can just plug the address of a destination into your device and listen to what the voice says to do.
If you consciously make yourself less dependent on GPS, you can help strengthen this cognitive function rather than allow it to weaken at the hand of your favorite location apps. Plus, being aware of your environment tends to make you more appreciative of your surroundings.
Skills in spelling and grammar are easier to fake
When we complained about doing grammar drills or practicing for spelling bees as kids, our parents assured us we were learning skills that were necessary to get through life. That made sense at the time, but our elders weren’t thinking about how spell checkers — as well as tools like Grammarly that even suggest how to improve grammar and word choices — would fill the void if our brains didn’t remember what we learned in grade school.
When people have a spell-check feature available to them, they rely on it instead of using their brains. If we can’t remember how to spell a word, there’s no need to even check an online dictionary. Spell check forgives our spelling blunders, but also potentially makes us bad spellers because it acts as a crutch.
The next time you’re tempted to run something through spell check, force yourself to proofread it first and try to catch errors on your own. Then, let technology do its thing and determine if you missed anything.
Search engines are interrupting the development of knowledge
Whether or not search engines like Google are making us dumb is a hotly debated topic. However, scientists say the structure of the internet and the number of potential distractions it offers rewires our brains. Scans performed during a UCLA study found heightened activity in subjects’ prefrontal cortex — the area involved with decision making — after using the internet for only an hour a day during a five-day span.
Linked text is supposed to be helpful by providing more context or an additional resource related to what you’ve just read. However, whenever your brain encounters a link, it asks you to decide to click it or not. Each one of those disruptions ultimately means the likelihood of the material contributing to in-depth knowledge about a subject is low. We can’t get engrossed in the content because the links interrupt us.
There’s also no need to spend hours in a library taking notes while reading a book written by someone considered the foremost authority on a subject. We’re no longer likely to work tremendously hard to find answers, then feel proud of ourselves. We can type queries into a search engine or even speak questions into our smartphones instead, getting answers in seconds that used to take hours to discover.
As a result, the sense of accomplishment that used to accompany research is gone, as is the need to diligently take notes from a library book because you knew it was only on loan to you for a limited amount of time. Today, the offerings made possible by AI mean we can just skim over topics and return to the material later if needed.
Worried that the internet and its structure are making your brain lazy? Consider downloading a browser extension that removes most of the distracting elements from a page, leaving mostly text. Mercury Reader and the appropriately named Just Read are two Chrome extensions that can help.
Recall memory is falling by the wayside
Scientists have also brought up how both the internet and AI have made it so we no longer have to remember the books we read, the movies we see, or the other events that comprise our pastimes. Before technology came to the forefront, people prized recall memory, which is the ability to remember previously learned things quickly.
It was handy for impressing friends at cocktail parties or competing along with Jeopardy! contestants in your living room on a weekday evening. But researchers say that since we know the required information is always a click or a voice command away when needed, we’ve stopped using recall memory as much as we once did.
Of course, there will be times when we cannot whip out our phones or ask Alexa for help. The next time you’re tempted to ask Alexa to answer a question for you, make your brain work and try to find the answer on your own. Then, reserve technology for verification purposes.
It’s not difficult to see how the convenience of AI could have a negative impact on our cognitive skills over time. Fortunately, there are things you can do to counteract your dependency on technology and avoid losing precious brain power due to lazy habits.
Kayla Matthews is a senior writer for MakeUseOf and a freelance writer for Digital Trends. Her work has also appeared on Vice, The Next Web, The Week, and TechnoBuffalo.