Kirk McAlpin, Freelance Science Writer
Digital media provide humans with more access to information than ever before—a computer, tablet, or smartphone can all be used to access data online and users frequently have more than one device. However, as humans continue to venture into the digital frontier, it remains to be known whether access to seemingly unlimited information is actually helping us learn and solve complex problems, or ultimately creating more difficulty and confusion for individuals and societies by offering content overload that is not always meaningful.
Throughout history, technology has changed the way humans interact with the world. Improvements in tools, language, industrial machines, and now digital information technology have shaped our minds and societies. There has always been access to more information than humans can handle, but the difference now lies in the ubiquity of the Internet and digital technology, and the incredible speed with which anyone with a computer can access and participate in seemingly infinite information exchange. Humans now live in a world where mobile digital technology is everywhere, from the classroom and the doctor’s office to public transportation and even the dinner table. This paradigm shift in technology comes with tremendous benefits and risks. Interdisciplinary Research (IDR) Teams at the 2012 National Academies Keck Futures Initiative Conference on The Informed Brain in the Digital World explored common rewards and dangers to humans among various fields that are being greatly impacted by the Internet and the rapid evolution of digital technology.
Keynote speaker Clifford Nass of Stanford University opened the dialogue by offering insight into what we already know about how the “information overload” of the digital world may be affecting our brains. Nass presented the idea of the “media budget,” which states that when a new media emerges, it takes time away from other media in a daily time budget. When additional media appear and there is no time left in a person’s daily media budget, people begin to “double book” media time. Personal computers, tablets, and smartphones make it easy to use several media simultaneously, and according to Nass, this double-booking of media can result in chronic multitasking, which effects how people store and manage memory. Although current fast-paced work and learning environments often encourage multitasking, research shows that such multitasking is inefficient, decreases productivity, and may hinder cognitive function.
The topic of multitasking and its effects resulted in a wide range of IDR Team discussions at the 2012 NAKFI Conference, from behavior and education to cutting edge technologies like the Brain-Computer Interface (BCI).
Interdisciplinary conference teams had the opportunity to imagine innovative ways in which the human brain may interact with computers in the future. Three IDR Teams (7A, B, and C) explored the BCI, which refers to direct communication between the brain and an external digital device such as a computer. While there was agreement across many groups that technology is far from “mind reading,” it is already possible for the brain to directly communicate with computers in some capacity. In the relatively near future, the teams thinking about this interface imagined a scenario in which a brain-computer feedback loop will be completed, meaning the brain will not only be able to influence digital signal pathways, but computers will be able to return some input to the brain that could influence and potentially even control behavior. The teams termed this a “closed loop” brain-computer interface.
Inspired by the predominant conference topics of multitasking and attention deficit, IDR Team 7B imagined a closed-loop BCI device that could aid productivity and manage multitasking by detecting when a person’s attention to one task is waning, and signaling that it would be a good time to switch to a different task better suited to the state of mind the person was in at the time. Team 7A created an imaginary company called Brain Buddy, Inc., a technological way to assist people in maintaining focus by alerting the brain when it is optimized to complete specific tasks. Another Brain Buddy
product could provide therapy to people with brain disorders such as PTSD and anxiety by helping them become aware of and avoid stimuli in the environment that are known to negatively influence their disorder.
One of the more intriguing—though strongly debated—topics at the conference was “extreme lifelogging,” which is enabled by the proliferation of portable digital technologies such as headset cameras, GPS equipment, and body monitoring aids. By lifelogging, a person can record virtually everything he or she does, day in and day out, and store resulting data on the Internet.
IDR Team 3 explored the benefits and risks of having one’s entire life online. Because of the potential threats to privacy and control over data posted online, the team proposed that to move forward with lifelogging, there must first be a type of “Consumer Bill of Rights” to protect identity and prevent discrimination from groups such as insurers, marketers, and employers. The team also acknowledged a technical need for an online platform with software that could begin to aggregate user-submitted data to identify which data are important. Acknowledging the current limitations of the technology and risk of posting every detail of one’s life, Team 3 believed that lifelogging could potentially benefit individuals seeking to better understand the consequences of their actions and improve their health, as well as provide important data to governments and businesses seeking to understand trends in human behavior.
Researchers tackling IDR Challenge 2 were asked to determine the effect of the digital age on health and wellness. Both groups explored the possibility of creating application software (apps) aimed at improving relationships between patients and physicians, and enabling patients to be more engaged in their own health care by creating a comprehensive picture of their health history. While the medical field is rapidly advancing in technology, research and new therapies, it is difficult for patients and doctors to keep up with everything. Apps proposed by the groups would consolidate patient data from different sources for better health care, and potentially help diagnose and treat current health problems in an individual. Patients could also use health apps to monitor fluctuations in indicators such as blood pressure and cholesterol.
Easy access to the Internet and digital technology has radically changed how humans learn in the modern world. The World Wide Web has brought a universe of knowledge into the classroom; enabling teachers and students to use computers as a learning tool brings unprecedented information access to every subject. Now, some classes are conducted entirely online.
To assess the changing learning landscape, two teams were asked to, “develop innovative curricula that will help students develop expertise in dealing with the information overload they will encounter during and after school.” As technology changes, institutions from schools to universities will need to develop strategies aimed at training students and lifelong learners to be able to manage the massive amounts of data that they are now exposed to. Team 1B came up with the idea of a Life Long Learning Locker (L4), which could manage, filter, and adapt information based on one’s personal education history and future goals. In an age of “information overload” and specialization, a system like L4 would help individuals cater to their personalized educational needs.
After designing and implementing Internet-based learning curricula, there will have to be methods to assess the efficacy of those programs. IDR Team 2 decided that current measurement tools are not sufficient; there is an acknowledged lack of data about student performance, without which it is difficult to plan future coursework and assess what programs work. Key to meeting the challenges of developing tools to measure digital-based learning criteria is gaining knowledge of diverse stakeholders and developing a framework for assessing outcomes for different technologies. In order to be able to make future recommendations, the group proposed research including determining appropriate learning technologies for different individuals, assessing what is a good mix of technology and traditional social interaction (“face-to-face” time), and learning to anticipate the effect of new technology. The team also proposed the creation of a public database that would allow users to see how the programs are evaluated by accredited organizations.
DIGITAL TECHNOLOGY AND BEHAVIOR
The effect of the new technologies on human behavior was also debated at the conference, and there was a general assumption that online communication has the potential to negatively alter person-to-person relationships. While the Internet allows people from diverse backgrounds and countries
to connect in ways that would have seemed impossible a decade ago, some researchers say that purely online interactions could diminish the quality and value of human relationships, leading to impaired emotional and social development in children as well as adolescents and adults.
Team 4A proposed research on how the Internet affects strong human ties, which are relationships characterized as reciprocal, high intensity, and long lasting. People rely on strong ties for support and emotional development, and strong ties are associated with mental and physical well-being. Although online platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube allow people to maintain many social ties with less effort, Team 4A observed that these ties may often be characterized as weak. The team hypothesized that the creation of increasing amounts of weak ties may come at the expense of important strong ties. Because the phenomenon is not well understood, the group proposed the creation of a scale they termed an Emotional (Intelligence) Quota (EQ), which could be used to measure peoples’ emotional responses to interactions that form and take place on the Internet.
Team 4B approached the effect of the Internet on behavior by considering the effect of echo chambers, which result when people seeking information on the Internet are filtered toward information that is more agreeable to them or websites that are more likely to contain information that fits their opinions, rather than lead them to sources that may challenge their ideas. Internet filters exist on many different levels, from the creation of the content, to technical filters that use search engines and social network trends to rank searched material, to the individual’s own preferences. Echo chambers lead to bias and polarization among people who use the Internet as a source of information. To begin to understand echo chambers and help users understand their susceptibility to bias on the Internet, Team 4B proposed research that would gauge individual awareness of bias on the Internet.
DIGITAL NATIVES AND DIGITAL IMMIGRANTS
Three IDR teams assigned were asked to assess differences in cognitive and brain function between digital natives and digital immigrants, or those who grew up using computers versus those who adopted digital technology later in life. (Team 5C pointed out that the topic is either irrelevant or truly ongoing because technology is changing so fast that today’s digital native may be tomorrow’s digital immigrant.) The groups did all agree that in light of an individual’s different needs and experience with digital technology, the
ETHICS, LAW, AND SOCIAL POLICY
Though much of the discussion focused on advancing technology, there was also an acknowledged importance of ethics, law, and social policy. As technologies advance and become more widely available, there will be huge datasets floating around on the Internet and it will be important to determine how the data will be used and stored, and what agencies or companies will regulate this universe of information. Especially in cases of BCI and lifelogging, team members worried that information could be hacked and used against the interest of the individual collecting and using the data.
During the conference, IDR Teams grappled with the idea of the Internet and other digital technology as largely unexplored phenomenon in relation to neurology. Participants agreed that there was insufficient research published about the relationship between the Internet and the brain. Each topic at the 2012 NAKFI Conference seemed to imply great gains and potential dangers for humans, and the tone of the conference was that it is not clear which way the pendulum will swing.
As people move into a digital world where the possibilities seem infinite, it is important to continue to consider whether or not this is a world people will want to live in, and how individuals will maintain some degree of control over their environment. What will be the result on individual behavior and the actions of societies if we have access to unlimited knowledge, can read people’s minds, remember everything that occurred in the past or know years in advance how one may die? However much humans try to harness technology and use innovation to their benefit, it may be impossible to predict the effect of technological change and anticipate its consequences. Using an interdisciplinary approach to address these challenges, IDR teams at the 2012 NAKFI Conference proposed new research to help humans understand and benefit from the digital world as we continue to evolve with it.