Information Technology for cognitive enhancement

May 4, 2020 00:00 · 511 words · 3 minute read IT cognitive enhancement tools

It becomes clear that tools and workflows of our daily work can enhance cognition. However, the majority of them are designed to increase productivity, which is not always the same thing.


This post was inspired by the article The Internet as Cognitive Enhancement where authors look into reasons why the internet fails to enhance cognition. Authors argue, citing a large body of work, that the potential for cognitive enhancement is there. However, they point out that information overload, misinformation, and distraction by design are preventing from exploiting this potential. As a remedy, they propose increasing:

  • technology literacy (understanding how systems interact)
  • information literacy (ability to spot misinformation)
  • collaborative filtering (wisdom of crowds)
  • AI companions (interactive advising on threats and dangers)

More of what?

There’s a set of analytical tools (from programming languages to things like spreadsheets) that increases our cognition by allowing us to make sense of large sets of data. Let’s call this category more of “understanding.”

However, a majority of notetaking tools are aiming to make taking notes and retrieving information effortless. It doesn’t mean they are helping in a better understanding of the knowledge stored in the records. If you compare Evernote with RoamResearch (or The Brain), it becomes clear that storing a train of thought in the Evernote is at least unintuitive. That’s why Evernote and the likes are more of “stored.”

Similarly, digital photography had evolved in the direction where it is way easier to rescue not-so-great photos to make them acceptable than to learn how to make better photos overall. Capturing a story in an impactful way is still hard, and modern technology gets less in the way. However, it doesn’t help in the core of the creative process. Let’s call Photoshop and other tools in this area more of “produced.”

Are there tools that we could assign to categories like more of “insight”? More of “accurate risk assessment”? More of “timely information retrieval”? Most likely, yes. But again, I observe that there are very few of them, while the majority of the IT technology aims at more of “productivity” than more of “cognitive enhancement”.

The unexplored area of intelligence amplification via technology

I don’t expect a boom in this unexplored area of tools for general cognitive enhancement anytime soon. Incentives are off. Also, even for industries where cognitive performance is directly rewarded, we see lots of structural problems on top of misaligned incentives. For example, we are waiting already for three decades for reasonably wide adoption of clinical decision support systems (recently reemerged as medical AIs, but mostly without improved accuracy).

We face a gigantic misuse of technology. And I’m not referring to complaints of early internet adopters that we turned the greatest achievement of XX century science into a tool for sending pictures of cats. I think about an extreme misunderstanding of the technology by its creators, cheerleaders, and supporters. We are enhancing our work and our leisure time (in both cases, somehow off-target) under the assumption that we want to stay the same in the process.

Our species-level intelligence drifts randomly.