How computers have eroded our ability to think for ourselves - Sir Andrew Cook

In his classic science fiction novel ‘Dune’, author Frank Herbert visualised a society on a distant planet which had destroyed computers – he called them ‘thinking machines’ – in order to survive. So powerful had these ‘thinking machines’ become that their very existence threatened the human beings who had created them.

Wisely, the inhabitants of Dune decided to destroy the machines before they were themselves destroyed.

Are those same machines now destroying we humans on planet earth? Your immediate answer is likely to be ‘no’, but I ask you to consider.

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How many drivers know how to read a paper map? A generation ago maps and signposts were the only way to navigate a car through unknown territory. Maps and signposts, plus that lost facility, a sense of direction, were engaged by our brains to get us from A to B.

Social media apps displayed on a mobile phone screen. PIC: Yui Mok/PA WireSocial media apps displayed on a mobile phone screen. PIC: Yui Mok/PA Wire
Social media apps displayed on a mobile phone screen. PIC: Yui Mok/PA Wire

But today, what happens? The first act of many drivers on entering their car is to switch on their sat nav. Even if they know the way to their destination, it is almost a spontaneous reaction. Now consider what happens if the satnav is switched off? With no map and no idea of the way to go, the driver is stranded, helpless.

The satnav is a computer device. It relies on electricity, and it can be tampered with by other humans. It can be wrong. Remember those stories of lorries becoming stranded in cul-de-sacs by erroneous satnavs? Another generation, and the satnav will have destroyed the human being’s ability to self-navigate.

But it is not just the satnav which has obtained dominance over humans when it comes to our ability to navigate. The electric power supply, the food supply, your domestic heating and lighting, your medical care, the emergency services – all are dependent on computers. Switch them off, or meddle with them, and the ordered, civilised world on which we rely collapses. Catastrophe follows.

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And I haven’t even begun to assess the dangers embedded in Artificial Intelligence. The satnav is a primitive form of AI. It is not an exaggerated stretch of reasoning from the question and answer ‘Why did you turn into that cul-de-sac and get stuck?’ ‘Because the satnav told me to’, to the question and answer ‘Why did you inject your patients with that wonder drug which has killed them?’ ‘Because the AI pharmacist told me to.’ Can you see the dangers facing us?

I reflect on this portent of things to come here on planet earth. As I walk through the streets, I pass others oblivious to my presence. Eyes glued to their hand-held computer devices, they receive an undiluted mix of images ranging indiscriminately from war-zone disasters to the latest fad diet.

Transfixed, their often-empty brains greedily absorb this diaphanous mix. Some may be fact. Most is a melange of distortions designed primarily to grab attention. Significant amounts are plain nonsense. Yet the so-called Generation Z, and I dare say much of Generations Y and X, absorb it as truth. Why?

The teaching profession is partly to blame. In my day, one was taught facts. Over time, one absorbed a collection of facts which, coupled with experiences, allowed one to form judgements. Not so today. Facts are what you want them to be. It’s ‘my truth’ rather than ‘the truth’. The default position is what your computer tells you.

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Subjectivity triumphs. Objectivity is lost. This is the a priori approach – deciding your conclusion in advance and then searching for facts to justify it – which the great philosophers of the classical and enlightenment eras thought they had banished. Socrates and Hobbes must be turning in their graves.

The tipping point in this march to oblivion was the Smartphone, subsequently aided and abetted by Covid. The Smartphone is a clever computer which has allowed unregulated and irresponsible sources to subordinate factual truth to ‘message’: that is to say, to present a message which corresponded with their objectives and beliefs.

The message might be political – ‘Believe this, it is true’ – or commercial, – ‘Buy this, it is nice’ – or most likely a mix of the two. Because the absence of decent education has disabled the ability of the human brain to challenge these messages, they pass as fact.

Independent thought is compromised or denied. False or distorted beliefs become religions, the most prominent presently being so-called ‘climate change’. Yes, average temperatures are certainly rising, but whether this is man-made or natural is not proven, and climate zones themselves are certainly not changing. It is by these nefarious means of indoctrination that the intolerance associated with ignorance germinates.

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Absurd pseudo-ideologies such as ‘wokeism’ and ‘cancel culture’ flourish. You are made to believe what the computer tells you to believe, not what you might yourself have concluded through knowledge and reason.

How has this been inflamed by Covid? Firstly, by exposing the forcibly idle to a non-stop stream of adulterated information.

Secondly, by introducing them to a condition where they don’t actually have to work for a living. Governments worldwide, desperate to be thought ‘caring’ and to be seen to put ‘lives before profit’ at all costs, decided to throw financial caution to the winds and create money from thin air.

In truth, they had already caught on to this wheeze with their programmes of so-called ‘quantitative easing’, more properly termed money-printing, which began at the time of the last financial crisis.

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As the late Charlie Munger, Warren Buffet’s lesser-known partner said, “if you’re not confused, you don’t understand the situation”. I suggest it is our enslavement to the computer which has helped cause the confusion in the first place.

Sir Andrew Cook is a British industrialist.

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