February 22, 2024

Can AI turn us into imbeciles? These scientists fear the worst

Have you ever thought about the impact of relying on machines to do your thinking? With the rapid advancement of technology, this scenario is moving from the realm of science fiction straight into the realm of possibility.

In a new scientific paper, Professor Umberto León Domínguez of the University of Monterrey explores the potential of artificial intelligence (AI) to not only mimic human conversations, but also fundamentally replace many aspects of human cognition. The work, published in the magazine Neuropsychologyraises concerns about the risks AI chatbots could pose to senior executive functions.

In simple terms, artificial intelligence refers to machines that are programmed to mimic human intelligence: learning, reasoning, and problem solving. Among AI models, ChatGPT stands out. It is a tool designed to understand and generate human-like text based on the data fed into it. Unlike older AI models that struggled to understand the nuances of language, ChatGPT uses something called a transformer model, which allows it to understand context and produce responses that are surprisingly similar to the responses a human might give .

Domínguez’s interest in ChatGPT stems from its potential as a technological milestone. He sees it as a sign of the technological singularity, a concept that suggests the development of AI could reach a point where it goes beyond human control, potentially merging human and machine intelligence.

“As a university professor, I design my activities as intellectual challenges to stimulate and train cognitive functions useful in the daily lives of my students, such as the ability to solve problems and plan,” explains Domínguez, the director of the Human Cognition and Brain Studies Lab and researcher in the Artificial Intelligence chair group.

“The emergence of a tool like ChatGPT has raised concerns for me about its potential use by students to complete tasks, thus preventing the stimulation of these cognitive functions. From this observation, I began to investigate and generalize the impact, not only as a student but as humanity, of the catastrophic effects that these technologies could have on a significant portion of the population by blocking the development of these cognitive functions.”

“That’s why I investigated how ChatGPT or other AI chatbots can interfere with higher-order executive functions, to understand how you can also train these skills even using ChatGPT.”

One of the paper’s striking claims is that AI can act as a “cognitive prosthetic,” a concept introduced in a 2019 study by Falk Lieder and his colleagues. Essentially, this means that AI can perform cognitive tasks on behalf of humans, much like a prosthetic limb serves as a replacement for a lost limb. This doesn’t just include simple tasks like calculating numbers or organizing schedules. The research suggests that AI’s capabilities could extend to more complex cognitive functions, such as problem solving and decision making, which are traditionally seen as distinctly human qualities.

Lieder and his colleagues specifically highlighted scenarios in which people’s natural inclination toward short-term rewards leads them away from actions that would be more beneficial in the long term. For example, choose to watch TV and relax instead of working on a challenging but rewarding project. To address this, they proposed using AI to ‘gamify’ the decision-making process. Gamification involves adding game-like elements such as points, levels and badges to non-game activities.

Through a series of experiments, Lieder and his colleagues provided the first evidence of the benefits of this approach. They found that AI-enabled decisions helped individuals make better choices faster, reduce procrastination, and focus more on important tasks.

But Domínguez’s article warns of the potential risks associated with integrating AI so closely into our cognitive processes. A key concern is ‘cognitive offload’, where people may become overly dependent on AI, leading to a decline in our ability to perform cognitive tasks independently. Just as muscles can weaken without exercise, cognitive skills can deteriorate if they are not used regularly.

The danger, as Domínguez’s article outlines, lies not just in becoming lazy thinkers. There is a greater risk that our cognitive development and problem-solving skills will be hampered. Over time, this could lead to a society where critical thinking and creativity are in short supply as people become accustomed to letting AI do the heavy lifting.

“I would like individuals to be aware that intellectual abilities essential for success in modern life need to be fostered from an early age, especially during adolescence. For the effective development of these abilities, individuals must make cognitive efforts,” Domínguez told PsyPost.

“Cognitive offloading can serve as a beneficial mechanism because it releases cognitive load that can then be focused on more complex cognitions. However, with technologies like ChatGPT, for the first time in history we are confronted with a technology that is able to deliver a complete plan, from start to finish.”

“There is therefore a real risk of individuals becoming complacent and overlooking even the most complex cognitive tasks. Just as you cannot become proficient at basketball without actually playing the game, the development of complex intellectual skills requires active participation and cannot rely solely on technological assistance.”

But don’t all technologies pose a risk of cognitive discharge? The researcher states that ChatGPT is distinguished by its ability to independently generate ideas and solutions and even have conversations. Traditional tools, on the other hand, still require human input to achieve results.

“Many people argue that there have been other technologies that allowed cognitive discharge, such as calculators, computers and, more recently, Google Search,” Domínguez explains. “But even then, these technologies didn’t solve the problem for you; they helped with part of the problem and/or provided information that you needed to integrate into a plan or decision-making process.

“With ChatGPT we encounter a tool that is (1) free to use for everyone (global impact) and (2) capable of planning and making decisions on your behalf. ChatGPT represents a logarithmic amplifier of cognitive discharge compared to the classical technologies previously available.”

The article was titled: “Potential cognitive risks of generative transformer-based AI chatbots on higher-order executive functions.”

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