Saturday, March 3, 2012


Quite the little ripple it set in my thinking, when I asked the question at a recent fast-food drive thru restaurant,

“Here’s a twenty.” I offered to pay for the food.
“Thank you sir and here is your change.”
“But I thought the total was $12.75?”
“You only gave me back $5.25!”
“Sorry sir, let me see…” She looked at the cash register.
“That is correct, sir.”
“Yes sir?” She did get an A-plus for civility and politeness.
“You mean taking 12.75 out of 20 is 5.25?”
“Let me call my manager.”

So this is where we are today. Life has changed. The wheels that turned, the cogs that clicked and the tick, tick, tick of the human brain has slowed in function even below its lowest capacity in some. We are allowing ourselves to be outsourced. Our brains are finding themselves limited in capacity even compared to the thumb-drives with only 128K of memory and that is mostly from disuse, leaving terabytes and terabytes of capacity to fester and die. Such a waste! Hans Moravec would be displeased.

There is the lure of the digital age. It is bright, flashy and absolutely hypnotizing. You carry a computer in your pocket today, the expansive physical dimensions of similar computing power, which, only a decade ago would have broken your back. If I want to read a book (a good thing) I have it in mere seconds wirelessly transferred in all its voluminous glory to my digital pad. If I want to calculate the median, a mean or an average, I just plug in the numbers and voila! The answers are right there. The oohs and aahs are palpable and everyone admires the gadget. But what about this three-pound universe that we house between the ears, called the brain?

Wheeling back to the past (if you will allow me some latitude), on a bright sunny Sunday morning drive, many moons ago, I drove with my kids to go skiing. On the way, I started asking simple arithmetic questions. By the time we had reached our destination the seven and nine year olds were busy adding 3 digit numbers mentally. The project had an incentive of course. The winner would get to go down the black diamond slope. The system had been handicapped for age, by the way. And… the winner would also get points towards the latest computerized gadget –Oops!

That was then, this is now. I see them both looking at the reflective bright screens of their respective smart-phones, when not otherwise occupied. But fortunately both are industrious for their own good. The synaptic frenzy of thought and action is still well developed in their brains, they prod and probe their universes and for that I am grateful.

The world changes and our thoughts are no longer our own. We rely on the gadget in out pockets to answer the basic questions that we used to rattle off without much ado. What then has this borne on civilization? Are we better off? Or are we sinking into the abyss of intellectual oblivion?

Well actually the answer is filled with ambiguity in the form of a yes and a no.

Some use the devices to expand their horizons by making the device do more than it claims. They make the devices create new enterprises. Case in point the “Angry Birds” app, a simplistic game that has garnered a fortune developed by an enterprising young man. Or take the instance of a real rag to riches story in the form of Facebook. Mark Zuckerberg its founder initiated the process of creating an open architecture of the computing platform to allow students at Harvard to socialize. As the movement spread, he was sharp enough and quick enough to adapt to the ensuing change. A quick form of communication with words and photos and the rest as you know is a multi-billion dollar 10-year history.

The ones that have the desire will push the limits into an ever-escalating domain of improving computing architecture, creating new vistas, aligning the right structures and realizing the right content and dreams. From that will spawn new industries; holographic universes, safer materials; more flexible, more pliable, less prone to degradation. There will be a plethora, of biological nano-robotic healthcare materials with brain and muscle enhancing drug and non-medicinal mechanisms, of stem cells that re-grow and replace the damaged ones and organs will reform back to their youthful majesty, of exploiting the sensorium to access more surrounding information and processors embedded within to manipulate that data, of drone surveillance for security (hopefully with safeguards from that Darwinian debt of the Orwellian threat of 1984), of psychic warriors that bring down enemies without firing a single shot. There will be exploitations at the fringe of science where the mathematical limits will be tested and retested until a new breakthrough ensues. There will be a continuum of chaos and revitalization. There will be a brand new day, every day. For that is the nature of the human thing. That is what separates us from our closest ancestors, the monkeys, baboons and orangutans. It is that 0.4% of genetic divergence that compels us to find fire, to use agriculture, to foster challenges, to hail the new dawn. It is what makes us. It is what defines us. We are that quintessential dust of nature, that paragon of all life that vows to wow. We are humans. The possibilities are endless, the sky is the limit, should you choose to rise above the rest.

The ones that don’t will always ask for their managers.

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