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Blog post

Critical Thinking and The Digital Age

May 1, 2018
By Rocco Portaro

Technology has for the most part led to increased efficiency in almost all aspects of our daily lives.  The 19th and 20th centuries brought about the industrial revolution linked to the creation of machines that replaced human labour and made mass production possible. Similarly, the 21st century saw the rise of the digital age and the internet of things, IoT, where society  relies on silicon chips, microprocessors and digital circuits to communicate, learn and work.  However, whereas the industrial revolution helped alleviate tedious manual labour, the rise of the digital age and artificial intelligence threaten to decrease our ability to think critically.

Every day we experience parts of our lives through a computer, whether its reading the news on a tablet, communicating through social media or  trying to complete a project.  Our experience is governed by software and algorithms  which try and shape the way in which we perceive the world around us and the information we ingest. As a  biomedical researcher, I often try to embrace technology, especially when it helps bring forth great innovations that save lives . The conundrum facing our society is how do we make use of all the digital tools around us whilst at the same time heightening our ability to think critically.

It seems that these days critical thinking is on the decline and at the expense of tools such as the infamous Google search.  In today's society if an answer or solution to a problem is required, the procedure involves the use of a search engine and the internet rather than stimulate the imagination or use previously acquired skills to solve it.  The truth of the matter is that computers are for the most part much better at processing large quantities of information and applying algorithms with clinical precision. If this is combined with the emerging field of "Big Data" ,that deals with extremely large amounts of data to reveal patterns and trends, than we have a perfect tool for decision making at the expense of critical thinking. In fact companies like Google are investing billions of dollars in artificial intelligence, they understand the power of using sophisticated algorithms and large data sets to do most of the thinking for us.

There was a time where the ability to process large amounts of information and apply some critical thinking would be a clear path to a great education and career. The rise of these new technologies means this will no longer be the case, as I mentioned in a previous blog, computers and automation have already made jobs that require repetitive tasks obsolete. People with highly skilled professions such as lawyers, accountants, even doctors probably find the idea of a computer performing most of their tasks preposterous. 

Traditionally these fields are just some of many that require a high level of cognitive abilities.  However , if the Googles and Amazons of the world have their way we will soon see artificial intelligence capable of performing highly skilled tasks better than humans. Imagine software that scans through medical imaging and yields a prognosis much quicker and accurately than a radiologist or algorithms that can determine the outcome of a court trial based on thousands upon thousands of previous trials. Humans will no longer have to partake in analysis, discussion and critical thinking, the fundamental traits that make humans "human", we will be just an extension of the decision making algorithms used to execute commands in the real world.

I strongly believe that we must consider artificial intelligence and the digital resources around us not as tools, but as an environment, and we must undergo a cultural shift which promotes creativity and critical thinking, so that future generations will not just be consumers of information but have the cognitive abilities to shape their world.

About the author

Rocco Portaro received his Master's degree from Concordia University in Mechanical Engineering, whereby he developed an expertise in fluid dynamics and manufacturing. His current research interests lie in the field of biomedical engineering, an area that utilizes engineering principles to solve problems faced by clinicians. He is currently developing technology for needle-free drug delivery.  He also founded an engineering firm specializing in industrial automation, through which he wishes to offer young engineering students an opportunity to hone their skills.


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