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« Seeking Help from Readers | Main | What is Learning? »

July 30, 2015


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Once the skill set is lost who would do the teaching? I can think of so many skills sewing, carpentry, shoe repair you name it, that generally require at least one if not more persons to teach them. You now have the controversial use of machines such as robotic surgery equipment, which in theory are there to aid and improve technique. A machine can never replace the range of cognitive human function. So what is the point in using them in this manner. Over reliance on machines and technology creates more problems than they solve. When the original skill is gone you are basically reinventing the wheel- starting from scratch. The genetically lucky and adaptive individuals would be needed to start the new course of learning.

Don Stewart

Dear George

A few thoughts about the offloading of functions from humans to mechanical devices or to other living creatures. For example, Dr. Mehmet Oz wrote this blurb for David Perlmutter’s book Brain Maker:
'Humans outsource digestion to their gut bacteria. Dr Perlmutter takes us on a journey to understand how these foreigners profoundly influence our brains for good and bad.’

There are thousands of species of microbes living on and in our bodies, and a close examination would probably reveal that much besides digestion has been offloaded. But the offloading generally works to the benefit of the human proper, so that we usually don’t make a distinction between the human proper and the foreigners. When I am driving, I routinely offload to my wife the job of reminding me when I need to stop at the recycling center…so I don’t just drive right by it. These, and numerous other examples, illustrate ‘good offloads’.

I believe it is a true statement that, without the offloading, humans could not live. So, obviously, it is not the offloading itself that is dangerous. Instead, we might look for certain kinds of offloading which we might anticipate to be dangerous.

Anything that depends on the continuance of fossil fuels as an energy source would, in my opinion, be quite risky. So, for example, offloading our nutrition to industrial agriculture is risky. Offloading pest control to a diverse ecosystem has some risks, but much lower risk than dependence on fossil fuels:

Trading Biodiversity for Pest Problems

One can think of all sorts of other examples where biology is useful, but which we have ignored and used fossil fuels. For example, nitrogen fixation, just in time supply of plant nutrients to roots, soil aeration, nutrient retention in soils, etc. And rather than garden, we offload everything to grocery stores which deprives us of exercise and mental focus and really fresh food.

In terms of computation, we have offloaded most of it to calculators and computers. Alternatives include the abacus and the slide rule. I would argue that total reliance on calculators and computers is dangerous, but that an abacus or a slide rule can both preserve the mental gymnastics which are essential to understanding and also take some of the computational load off of our brains. Children should, perhaps, be taught arithmetic using the abacus and slide rule.

Thinking about complex systems and our reliance on computers offers different challenges. When we see the computer draw some beautiful curves, we (or at least I) tend to believe them. Believing the curves carries its own risks. If we try to think of approaches which might work in the absence of fossil fuels and computers, I suggest that we look at suggestions by Frank Wilczek (the physicist) and Jane Hirshfield (the poet). On page 324 of A Beautiful Question, Wilczek looks at Complementarity, as conceived by Neils Bohr:

‘No one perspective exhausts reality, and different perspectives may be valuable, yet mutually exclusive.’

Jane Hirshfield’s book Ten Windows examines ways in which good poems are windows through which we can look at the world from many different perspectives. So I would argue that Hirshfield and Wilczek and Bohr are thinking along similar lines. Different perspectives don’t calculate beautiful curves, but perhaps a disciplined approach to Complex Systems can be built by using the principle of Complementarity or Poetic Windows.

It is difficult to imagine fractal images being computed except with computers. But Adrian Bejan, in his Constructal Theory, believes that fractals are overrated anyway. Bejan usually calculates with pencil and paper. Perhaps some thought and practice now might pay dividends as we learn to live with less energy.

Don Stewart

Robin Datta

Filmed January 2014 at TEDSalon NY2014
13:08 minutes
Sebastian Junger: Why veterans miss war


"Phase IV":

Consider the cost to the bottom 99%+ of human apes to support the growth of net-energy flows to support the complex, high-tech, high-entropy resources and income to the top 0.001-1% in NYC, Boston, DC, Chicago, Atlanta, Dallas-Houston, Denver, La La Land, Silly-Con and Social Mania Valley, and Seattle-Vancouver.

Then note that, given unprecedented debt and asset values to wages and GDP, total net financial flows to the financial AND financialized (gov't, health care, "education", retail, and financial services) sectors of the US economy since 2008 NOW EQUAL the total value-added output of the US economy, no growth of real GDP per capita is possible hereafter.

Another way to perceive it is that the top 0.001-1% to 10% have claimed (whether or not they know it) all future growth in perpetuity in terms of net-energetic, debt-money-denominated labor product, profits, and gov't receipts for social goods.

The comparable periods during which similar conditions occurred historically were prior to the French, American, and Russian revolutions, and leading up to the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The top 0.001-1% have largely disengaged from the productive economy, having accumulated sufficient debt-money-denominated fiat digital "wealth" to sustain their lifestyles for several lifetimes at the expense of the bottom 90-99%.

From an historical perspective, this is classic imperial decadence.

But no Establishment eCONomist or mass-media influential can dare say so or risk being discredited, financially ruined, unemployed, and the prospect of a homeless, solitary, Diogenes-like existence seeking an honest man by night by the light of a lantern among the company of canines.

If I were to be compelled to place a bet on human apes vs. insects, I would bet the farm on the latter, which, of course, ironically, means that I (and we) lose the bet either way, as I, as a human ape, would not survive to collect from the surviving insects who have no use for human-created currency units per net energy per capita per unit time.

Thus, I am comforted by the perception that I no longer need to be homeless with a lantern in search of honesty, as it exists in the purist form among the highly evolved, exergetically equilibriating, eusocial, six-legged, small-brained insects.


I feel like math courses often err too far on emphasizing "understanding" and not far enough on the side of drilling and going through the mechanical algorithms mentally. Having studied a lot of math, I'm good at writing proofs, but ill equipped to solve any sort of numerical problem without the aid of a computer. I feel like a certain amount of slowly going through the mechanical motions by hand is important, since it gives you more intuition of what goes on in the computer's brain - "thinking like a machine". Of course, you never see those kinds of exercises in upper-level math courses, since they are very tedious and they don't really develop the creativity and problem solving skills a mathematician or researcher will need.

George Mobus


The human species is still pretty adaptive and has the native affordance mentality that gave rise to tool-making/use in the first place. And you are right. The most adaptive "survivors" will need to do a lot of reinventing some day. That might really be the best thing for planet Earth, though. My hypothesis is that only the most sapient people are going to survive and adapt (by definition they are the most adaptive) so they will also hopefully be wise enough not to repeat our mistakes in over-reliance on technology.

@Don S.

Good points all.

@Robin D.,

Thanks for the link.


You might find my early research on the brain of a "moronic snail" interesting. It is available on my academic website: in the Adaptive Agents Lab link.


Believe it or not I had a tendency to eschew math classes (enough for a minor an no more) because I wanted to use math to help me understand things, not for its own sake. I followed a different path in which I would build models (using equations) and then compute the results, draw the graph, and usually discover that my intuitions about what the math was doing were wrong. But I usually ended up seeing where I went wrong and started the process over again. When I finally got my hands on a computer and learned to program, my progress in this "test it and see" approach took off exponentially. What usually happened is that I discovered a need to understand some phenomenon that required math I did not have (like stochastic processes). So I went after the math until I could see how to use it to help me understand the problems. Rather than fill a tool chest with all kinds of tools, I waited until I found a need for a tool and then acquired it.

The upside of this approach is that I was always motivated. The downside is that it wasn't until I was deeper in computer science that I started seeing the "big picture" of the relations between various maths and began to appreciate the need for a larger tool box!

I suppose it really depends on individual interests.


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