The history of science and technology is often delineated by paradigm shifts. A paradigm shift is a fundamental change in how we view the world and our relationship with it. The big paradigm shifts are sometimes even referred to as an “age” or a “revolution”. The Space Age is a perfect example. The middle of the 20th Century saw not only an incredible increase in public awareness of space and space travel, but many of the industrial and technical advances that we now take for granted were byproducts of the Space Age.
The Cognitive Science Age
It’s probably cliche to write this but I believe we are at the beginning of a new age, and a new, profound paradigm shift. I think we’re well into the Cognitive Science Age. I’m not sure anyone calls it that, but I think that is what truly defines the current era. And I also think that an understanding of Cognitive Science is essential for understanding our relationships with the world and with each other.
I say this because in the 21st century, artificial intelligence, machine learning, and deep learning are now being fully realized. Every day, computers are solving problems, making decisions, and making accurate predictions about the future…about our future. Algorithms decide our behaviours in more ways that we realize. We look forward to autonomous vehicles that will depend of the simultaneous operation of many computers and algorithms. Machines will (and have) become central to almost everything.
And this is a product of Cognitive Science. As cognitive scientists, this new age is our idea, our modern Prometheus.
Cognitive Science is an interdisciplinary field that first emerged in the 1950s and 1960s and sought to study cognition, or information processing, as its own area of study rather than as a strictly human psychological concept. As a new field, it drew from Cognitive Psychology, Philosphy, Linguistics, Economics, Computer Science, Neuroscience, and Anthropology. Although people still tend to work and train in those more established traditional fields, it seems to me that society as a whole is in debt to the interdisciplinary nature of Cognitive Science. And although it is a very diverse field, the most important aspect in my view is the connection between biology, computation, and behaviour.
The Influence of Biology
A dominant force in modern life is the algorithm, as computational engine to process information and make predictions. Learning algorithms take in information, learn to make associations, make predictions from those associations, and then adapt and change. This is referred to as machine learning, but the key here is that machines learn biologically,
For example, the algorithm (Hebbian Learning) that inspires machine learning was discovered by the psychologist and neuroscientist Donald Hebb at McGill university. Hebb’s book on the The Organization of Behaviour in 1949 is one of the most important books written in this field and explained how neurons learn associations. This concept was refined mathematically by the Cognitive Scientists Marvin Minsky, David Rumlehart, James McLelland, Geoff Hinton, and many others. The advances we see now in machine learning and deep learning are a result of Cognitive Scientists learning how to adapt and build computer algorithms to match algorithms already seen in neurobiology. This is a critical point: It’s not just that computers can learn, but that the learning and adaptability of these systems is grounded in an understanding of neuroscience. That’s the advantage of an interdisciplinary approach.
The Influence of Behaviour
As another example, the theoretical grounding for the AI revolution was developed by Allen Newell (a computer scientist) and Herbert Simon (an economist). Their work in the 1950s-1970 to understand human decision making and problem solving and how to model it mathematically is provided a computational approach that was grounded in an understanding of human behaviour. Again, this an advantage of the interdisciplinary approach afforded by Cognitive Science.
The Influence of Algorithms on our Society
Perhaps one of the most salient and immediately present ways to see the influence of Cognitive Science is in the algorithms that drive the many products that we use online. Google is many things, but at its heart, it is a search algorithm and a way to organize the knowledge in the world so that the information that a user needs can be found. The basic ideas of knowledge representation that underlie Google’s categorization of knowledge were explored early on by Cognitive Scientists like Eleanor Rosch and John Anderson in the 1970s and 1980s.
Or consider Facebook. The company runs and designs a sophisticated algorithm that learns about what you value and makes suggestions about what you want to see more of. Or, maybe more accurately, it makes suggestions for what the algorithm predicts will help you to expand your Facebook network… predictions for what will make you use Facebook more.
In both of these cases, Google and Facebook, the algorithms are learning to connect the information that they acquire from the user, from you, with the existing knowledge in the system to make predictions that are useful and adaptive for the users, so that the users will provide more information to the system, so that it can refine its algorithm and acquire more information, and so on. As the network grows, it seeks to become more adaptive, more effective, and more knowledgeable. This is what your brain does, too. It causes you to engage in behaviour that seeks information to refine its ability to predict and adapts.
These networks and algorithms are societal minds; They serve the same role for society that our own network of neurons serves our body. Indeed, these algorithms can even change society. This is something that some people fear.
Are Fears of the Future Well Founded?
When tech CEOs and politicians worry about the dangers of AI, I think that idea is at the core of their worry. The idea that the algorithms to which we entrust increasingly more of our decision making are altering our behaviour to serve the algorithm in the same way that our brain alters our behaviour to serve our own minds and body is somethings that strikes many as unsettling and unstoppable. I think these fears are founded and unavoidable, but like any new age or paradigm shift, we should continue to approach and understand this from scientific and humanist directions.
The Legacy of Cognitive Science
The breakthroughs of the 20th and 21st centuries arose as a result of exploring learning algorithms in biology, the instantiation of those algorithms in increasingly more powerful computers, and the relationship of both of these concepts to behaviour. The technological improvements in computing and neuroscience have enabled these ideas to become a dominant force in the modern world. Fear of a future dominated by non-human algorithms and intelligence may be unavoidable at times but and understanding of Cognitive Science is crucial to being able to survive and adapt.