Never mind machines getting cleverer – is technology making me stupider? | Adrian Chiles

Thanks to too-useful apps and gadgets I have managed to lose some basic skills, from map-reading to finding my phone. Is this the real threat from AI?

On New Year’s Eve I watched The Matrix for the first time. I appreciate I’m late to the party on this one but I thought it jolly clever. And a bit worrying, obviously. The fear of artificially intelligent beings turning on us – be it by taking all our jobs off us, or tearing us limb from limb, or both – is widely held. I think it will happen, but not quite in the way that’s been assumed. It will happen not so much because artificial intelligence becomes more and more intelligent, but rather because it’s making us more stupid with every year that passes.

I base this conclusion on a study I’ve been conducting. There is a cohort of one: me. It concerns an ostensibly indispensable function I recently discovered on my Apple watch. I had owned the thing for three years before I found this feature, which is evidence enough of my mental slowness. It works like this: if I’m unable to recall where I left my phone, I can merely press a button on the watch that makes the phone play a jaunty tune and reveal its location.

As an Olympic-standard mislayer of things, this felt like the most useful appliance of science since daily disposable contact lenses were invented. I considered how many times a day I couldn’t find my phone and, with the ringer invariably off, how many hours I would spend looking for it. All that wasted time I could now reclaim. I found myself actually looking forward to losing it.

Sure enough, before long I was pressing my watch’s phone-find-rescue button and overjoyed to hear it dinging away. Oh, how good it felt to be alive at this time; I would have made a rotten caveman with no button to press to make my hunting club ding to reveal where I’d gone and left it.

At first the dinging would be distant. Oh, silly me, left it in the bedroom, I’d say. Or: there you are, in my coat in the wardrobe. But over time the dings have come closer and closer. Frequently, they are so close they make me – and the dog –jump. The phone is often right under my nose. It seems to me that this technology has eroded my already poor faculty for phone-finding. It has gone the same way as my once great ability to navigate without satnav and even turn a bathroom light on at night (mine comes on automatically; don’t judge me). Also, when I walk away from my partner’s car with the key in my pocket it automatically locks itself. Already – and I don’t even drive it that often – the must-lock-the-car facility on my mental hard drive has been all but erased. When I walk away after driving any other car now, not least my own, I invariably leave it unlocked. None of this is going to end well.

If, God forbid, I press the find-phone button and it turns out the Bluetooth is off, I feel something close to panic: the chances of finding the non-dinging phone feel close to zero. Despair reigns. And the cruel irony is that, in the end, the phone-finding miracle on my wrist isn’t even saving any time. The awareness that I can find the phone at the press of button appears to have made me even worse at hanging on to it. In all, I’m pretty sure I now spend more time seeking out my dinging phone than in the days before I couldn’t ding it at all. Last night, a new low was reached: having mislaid a glass of wine, I found myself reaching for my watch to press the “Where’s my wine?” button which, at the time of writing, hasn’t been invented.

Long before the machines get too clever for us, we’ll all be too stupid for words. The Matrix 2050 is going to be a right dreary watch: rows of bored-out-of-their minds robots watching us zombies lumber around looking for stuff we can’t find. We must call a halt to the development of these dangerously useful apps before it’s too late. But before we do that, perhaps they might squeeze in three final ones for me: LocateMySpecs, WhereIsMyWallet and FindMyMarbles.

  • Adrian Chiles is a Guardian columnist


Adrian Chiles

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
A Glitch in the Matrix review – deep-dive into simulation theory
Using animation, archive and clips from the movie franchise, Rodney Ascher’s genre-bending doc gives philosophers and kooks space to explain why we are living in a synthetic world

Leslie Felperin

04, Feb, 2021 @6:00 AM

Article image
Empathy machines: what will happen when robots learn to write film scripts?
AI is on the march in the movie industry – but what would an android-written film actually look like? And will it be any good?

Simon Stephenson

07, Jul, 2020 @9:08 AM

Article image
AI: will the machines ever rise up?
From Ex Machina to Terminator Genisys, ‘synths’ and robots have invaded our popular culture. But how real is the reel depiction of artificial intelligence?

Ian Sample, science editor

26, Jun, 2015 @5:05 PM

Article image
What if we’re living in a computer simulation?
Virtual reality technology is making great advances, but it has also helped popularise a theory long debated by philosophers and now gaining supporters in Silicon Valley – that the outside world is itself a simulation

Andrew Anthony

22, Apr, 2017 @9:00 AM

Article image
iHuman review – doom-laden documentary about the future of AI
Are the robots going to kills us? Film-maker Tonje Hessen Schei speaks to a range of interviewees including Elon Musk’s computer scientist in an eye-opening, anxiety-inducing film

Cath Clarke

08, Dec, 2020 @2:00 PM

Article image
I’m Your Man review – Dan Stevens is the perfect date in android romance
Near-future tale of a woman who accepts a male ‘companion’ robot played by Stevens is laboriously told and not really funny enough

Peter Bradshaw

11, Aug, 2021 @1:00 PM

Article image
Technology is killing the myth of human centrality – let's embrace our demotion
The stories we tell around technology shape both our understanding and the future of technology itself

Tom Chatfield

27, Aug, 2016 @2:00 PM

Article image
Kristen Stewart co-authors research paper on 'pioneering' film technique
Twilight star among three authors of paper explaining how ‘neural style transfer’ method was put to use in her directorial debut, the 17-minute short Come Swim

Andrew Pulver

20, Jan, 2017 @2:37 PM

Article image
Archive review – anyone for a posthuman wife? She comes with an off switch
A lonely computer scientist in the year 2038 secretly works on an android version of his wife who died in a car crash – is it romantic, or something more sinister?

Cath Clarke

14, Jan, 2021 @7:00 AM

Article image
Can Chappie rescue intelligent-robot movies?
Hopes are high for Neill Blomkamp’s forthcoming robot-adopted-by-humans offering, but Big Hero 6 and Automata prove it’s tricky terrain, writes Ben Child

Ben Child

07, Nov, 2014 @7:59 AM