I was intrigued when my beautiful baby boy Edgar showed interest in pressing buttons, despite being less than a year old.
It turns out that humans have a separate mental model for tools than we have from other things in the world however. When an adult and a child is presented with an animal which is changed visually to look like another animal, such as a cat dressed up like a lion, we say it’s still a cat which temporarily doesn’t look like a cat. However, if shown a functional object, such as a table, which is changed into another, such as a chair, we don’t say it’s a table which looks temporarily like a chair, we say it is a chair, since a tool is what it does–we are cognitively primed to recognise tools as separate from all other objects.
This is because we have evolved from tool use, we did not evolve to use tools. Our great ancestors used tools far earlier than we evolve into Homo Sapiens.
I learnt about our innate sense of ‘tools’ from a book Howard Rheingold strongly suggested I read, by Joseph Henrich, called The Secret of Our Success (2015), with the sub-title: “How culture is driving human evolution, domesticating our species and making us smarter.” I further learnt how deeply our connection our tools go, a notion which I had previously come across in other writings, from McLuhan (1967) to Mazlish (1995). Joseph Henrich’s description of the transmission of knowledge through culture, which is powerfully important, also highlights the importance and centrality of tool use to who we are.
Our tool use goes back much further than our modern selves, with results we can read in our bodies as well as our minds: We have a greater capacity to cool our bodies through sweat than other animals so we can out run our prey thorough persistence over time. But we don’t have larger water-storage capacities. This ability developed because we could put water in containers. We have a smaller digestive system than other animals for our size, apart from our small intestine, because we use tools to start digesting our food before we eat it, through food preparation and cooking. The reason our small intestine is not reduced is that this is where the nutrients are extracted.
Our tools give us agency, they give us direct control over our world, through the simple act of a knife cutting through our food, shoes allowing us to walk for long distances and writing allowing us to freeze and re-arrange our own thoughts and those of others who may be separated from us by both time and space.
Joseph Henrich’s main thesis, and it is an important one, is that we are a cultural species and that we will readily use cultural knowledge with many mental traits for taking into account the knowledge of other people even beyond direct observation since we may not see all the aspects of what our group has seen over generations.
In other words, you could say that, in general, we are controlled by our culture and we control our tools.
This is not just an ‘academic’ observation but a key issue in the future development of our species as we move from focusing on tool design to augment our intellect (IA, Intellect Augmentation), to relying increasingly on artificial intelligence (AI) to do the thinking for us. Our cognitive apparatus has different means of handling situations presented to us as being controlled through a tool (direct control) versus presented to us via another creature (cultural control).
This puts an entirely different spin on Socrates concern about speaking and writing: When we speak with a person we can have a genuine dialogue, when we read we have a different ‘mindset’ to how we interpret the text and when we get our knowledge (can it be called knowledge when still in AI form?) from a non-human artificial intelligence, will we still ‘read’ this knowledge as we would from another person, with all the cultural filtering that involves? If so, we are heading towards dangerous and mentally constrained territory where we will instinctively trust the well-spoken machine as we trust a person and a community.
There is no question that AI will continue to provide powerful augmentations to us but we should not negate the intimacy of tools to who we are and how deep the opportunity for development of ever more powerful tools will augment us in very different ways from dialogues with machines.