Man Plus Machine: Not a Hope But a Promise

05/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In the early 1980s, while teaching a course in neuroscience, a student suddenly showed me the future.

The course had over one hundred students and met in a large lecture room on the campus of the University of Chicago. At the front of the lecture room were two tiers of a wide blackboard assembly, a podium and a nearby demonstration table.

On this day the table was empty.

Before the lecture began, a student approached me with a small metal object in his hand, the object about the size of a cigarette package. The object was a battery-driven micro-recorder, and the student asked if he could place the micro-recorder on the empty table to record the lecture.

I agreed, the gears grinding inside my head probably giving my eyes a glazed look.

Epiphanies, sudden insights, are not easy to come by, but at that moment I had one.

I had a sudden vision of micro-recorders not on the table near the podium (at the next lecture five students would have them on the table, in later lectures there were dozens), but instead a vision of micro-recorders strapped to the heads of my students, each student in the room with a personal micro-recorder. And if not merely strapped, then embedded, permanently fixed in the skull.

No human being has a perfect and complete auditory memory. But every micro-recorder has a perfect and complete auditory memory. We can debate the various phases of human evolution, but what is not debatable is that in our current phase the human species has invented machines that can act as sensory and information adjuncts to the human brain. No other species on Earth has done anything remotely like this -- not at this level of complexity and significance. So far, on this planet, we are unique.

During the past 500 years, the classical method used by students who attend a university lecture has been that they listen to the lecturer, write notes as fast as they can, then review their notes later as a record of the lecture. Since no student has a perfect auditory memory, no university lecture was ever completely reviewable by a student. Examinations were often more tests of the efficiency of note-taking than of understanding.

Beginning in the 1980s, micro-recorders the size of cigarette packs have made it possible for students (and everyone else) to have perfect and complete auditory memory provided by a personal machine.

It's a watershed, a pivot point, a fork in the road.

These days, students carry not only micro-recorders with perfect auditory memory, but they also carry laptop computers that can hold thousands of books and documents and photographs and diagrams accessible in seconds, can quickly solve complex mathematical equations beyond practical human ability, can translate between any one of a hundred languages, can digitize printed text with a pen device, and so on.

Digitized information will rule the 21st century. As a prosaic example, consider the medical intern. In the 20th century, medical interns were prone to carry in their white coats printed pocket manuals of diagnosis. In the 21st century what they will carry in their pockets will be a "SMARTSberry" -- a pocket computer that will hold not only a digitized manual of diagnosis but the complete digitized text of every textbook they used in medical school.

Since we live in the midst of a great shift, altering our view of human reality is not easy. The simple reality is that portable computers need to be considered as much a part of the people who carry them around as their brains. We don't grow our computing machines the way we grow our hair, but the human species has certainly produced its computing machines with its own hands and brains.

Our machines have always belonged to us, and now they are becoming us. My personal view, in fact, is that what needs to be tested in schools and universities are students plus their machines and not the students alone.

Truly, our species is not what it used to be. The unit of human evolution has been transformed by our technology. The current evolving unit is not man alone, but man plus machine, essentially a new species.

Although the transformation is just beginning, the 21st century promises to accelerate this transformation of man alone to man+machine with great speed. You may not realize it, but this transformation is already affecting how you think and work.

What is important is that research is now telling us that the skill and ingenuity involved in analytical ability are for the most part acquired rather than innate, learned early or later, that the necessary brain wiring is a result of personal experience -- which means every individual of reasonable intelligence can improve brain performance.

That's the message of current science--and it's not a hope but a promise.