A future under threat: American intellect is becoming increasingly expensive and less informed


Remember sitting down at the breakfast table as a kid while your parents read the morning paper? Or flipping through local news channels as a family on the couch? It seems a long time past when we could all hum the tune to the same catchy jingle, chat across the fence with a neighbor about local issues and share a similar awareness or engage in political arguments without immediate skepticism or dismissal.

So, what happened?

While attending a recent community gathering, I went with the mission of listening and conversing casually with as many people as possible. During the experiment, I heard mention of a podcast no one else knew of; a couple of social media platforms referenced; a series on Netflix that many had not seen. Aside from being in the same lobby, it was not clear what united any of us.

Sadly, we seem to be dumbing ourselves down by living in silos, relying on technology and making access to information harder to get and impossible to accept. Studies have found that human intelligence is declining, and the worst slide was for the age group 18–22. Until recently, IQ scores had been on the rise since 1932 with younger age groups typically outperforming older groups — evidence that the course of human learning and application is evolving.

There exists an inverse relationship between the evolution of technology and human intelligence. At first blush, that has not been a bad thing, at least historically. For most of human history, it’s served as more of an upgrade. Technology has always come at the cost of some human knowledge, but provided a benefit. Take the plow for example. Farmers used digging sticks for the better part of 170,000 years, where a skillset — everything from how to manufacture a digging stick to how and when to use it — was made irrelevant with the invention of the plow. Humans traded in one kind of knowledge for another.

Now add an economic layer, where profit is more important than progress. From the article you want to read online, to that impression or share on social media, all the way down to the plastic bag you carry groceries home in — in today’s economy, everything has a price tag. Beyond cold, hard cash, what is the implicit cost? What does it mean for our species when human intellect is no longer being upgraded and replenished with the new, but rather being nickeled and dimed into bankruptcy?

Exhibit one: The ad industry. In the age of the algorithm, brands don’t need you to remember them if they can remember you. The death of the jingle, for example, marks the end of a simple yet enjoyable memory task — a shared experience of culture once built into daily life. Never in a million years would I have predicted that the trading in of rabbit ears and catchy commercials would incite lament around the loss of human brain power. Those beloved jingles exercised our memories — but they also united us.

The loss of the jingle is not the only affront to our unity and progress. In addition to sliding intelligence, we are confronted with a suspicion of trusted information and knowledge acquisition.

Journalism, for instance, is facing extinction with two thirds of newspapers closing in the last two decades and 43,000 journalists out of work, according to the Associated Press. Majoring in journalism has lost its luster as jobs become scarce. The pipeline is drying up.

Further, American libraries are under attack. From digital licensing costs to political censorship and defunding efforts, these trusted and generally free-to-access institutions of information and services face an uncertain future.

In our public schools, where we should be cultivating and supporting our most fragile and inquiring minds, enrollment is reaching new lows. On college campuses, the fear of hate speech and violence; political encroachments on curriculum and free speech in the classroom; and questions about the value-trade on paying for a college degree have left fewer people per capita seeking higher education — where the life-long love of learning and knowledge acquisition are nurtured.

Thinking about all of the converging issues that are contributing to gross loss of human intelligence, it should be cause for great concern.

The increasing prevalence of paywalls to prop up media revenue is only being exacerbated by the AI revolution as media outlets replace human content creation to save money but introducing the prospect of misinformation and lack of originality.

From where I sit, I fret that intelligence is being commoditized, polarization and isolation is on the rise, the cost for knowledge is trending up while personal wealth is trending down. And AI is exploding. Where does that leave the future of humanity?

If we are intent on devaluing journalism and education, and our freedoms to access information are under assault, it’s not clear where humans stand. What does it mean for humans when (not if) we reach the point where we are no longer able to create the content that defines us — when we stop inventing our own history?

Predictions estimate that as soon as 2026, 90% of content will be AI-generated. AI has been unleashed on an unstoppable trajectory that will, as cautioned by Elon Musk and many others, surpass human intelligence and consciousness. The White House has drafted a blueprint for an AI Bill of Rights, and more recently, issued an “Executive Order on Safe, Secure, and Trustworthy Artificial Intelligence.” Fortunately, this is a problem that many leaders are taking seriously.

To be sure: There are many compelling arguments for the promise and benefit of AI. From eliminating rote tasks in the workplace to reducing bias in hiring or promotion; self-driving vehicles with the potential to improve public safety; chatbots that can improve customer experience; automating irrigation systems in farming, optimizing water use while increasing production. The possibilities are absolutely riveting.

But it’s a confused bag, to say the least. While a majority of American adults believe the risks of AI outweigh the opportunities, they also seemingly prefer AI-generated content to that created by a human. I think it’s safe to say that we don’t know what we don’t know, and what we do know is that we fear the unknown.

The question is: As AI replaces human creation, human thinking, and human tasks, what will humans learn and do instead? And if we are giving up on the things that have put us at the top of the food chain — valuing, creating and acquiring knowledge — are we writing the prologue to our own extinction?

Disclaimer: 100% of this content was researched, written and edited by humans. All opinions are our own.