03 March 2021

What our world is like, how to “tame” it and how to keep being human in the ongoing digitalization. Tatiana Chernigovskaya, Professor Doctor in Biology and Linguistics, Director at Saint Petersburg State University Institute of Cognitive research has delivered an opening speech at the IKBFU’s Year of Science. The speech was devoted to the current civilizational patterns change and the scientist also attempted to answer one of the most complicated questions for us: “Where we are now?”.

People tend to say that the world has changed and it keeps on changing.  But according to Prof. Dr. Chernigovskaya, we have always been living in a changeable and controversial environment.

“Imagine that you are in a jungle. You have no claws, fur, tail or talons, you are naked. And you have a lot of things around you with the only desire to feast upon you. I do think that this experience was way more stress-provoking than our daily problems in the modern world”, - the world-famous scientist emphasized.

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But there are things that are different now. First of all, everything changes too fast. Things that used to shaping generations for thousands of years now only take a week.

Prof. Dr. Chernigovskaya carried on:

“Secondly, we are living in a collapsing world. This is why there are so many talks about the nearing end of times. My favorite character, Alice from “Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There” by Lewis Carroll, said that when there is no more agreement between people, things act strange. And this is something to worry about. Just imagine to politicians agreeing on something and then one of them suddenly changing his mind just because he can. It is impossible to live life without rules”.

Another worrying trend of our times is that we have no means of verifying information. While this is something any person must be able to do.

Social network

Dunbar’s number is a suggested cognitive limit of the number of social contacts with whom one can maintain stable relationships depending on brain size. For example, apes are only capable to constitute a social group of 50 individuals, with 6 of them being in the “inner circle” – the nearest and dearest. As the human brain is larger, we may form social groups of 150 individuals with 15 closest ones.

“And now take a look at your smartphones and computers. There are thousands of social contacts, which will cause a collapse in social structures. We all are parts of various social networks, the real ones, not the computer ones. Those networks regroup and form other structures on the regular basis. And what about children? I am often asked whether they have a different brain than we or not? In terms of anatomy, we are the same species. But brain neural networks are being formed constantly by life itself, so in these terms – yes, children have a different neural network. And there is a quadrillion of synapses all over the neural network with the information traveling between them constantly. It is changeable as the environment around us changes”.

Today we live in the world with “fading” ethical and law norms, especially the ones regarding artificial intelligence, which has already become a part of our daily life:

“We need to carefully think of ethics and law and this work must always go on”.

Digital World

The world we live in today is very flexible, unstable, and transparent, as because of things like geolocation people are always aware of where we are.

“The digital world began and will continue to live autonomously. And this is something to be scared of. I don't even mean the rise of the machines. Already today we see the Internet of things, the self-organization of networks according to their own laws, digital reality as one of the factors of selection in society. <...> In addition, we have a growing distrust in the information. When I and my colleagues used to write our first dissertations we were struggling to find any information. Now the question is different: what to do with it? And in this tangle, there is both real information, which can be trusted, and fake information made very well, which is easy to confuse”.

Worries

This life makes people really worried. Children start to feel that their life is delayed; they start to think that their life is just a first attempt of life that is to come.

“What do we say to our children? We urge them to do well at school, high school, university stages like Bachelor’s and Master’s, but what is going to come next? Their life will be over before they stop ‘attempting’ to live. Their life started at the moment when the cells of a mother and a father united. So there should be no attempts to live. I may sound arrogant, but I’m sure that Immanuel Kant would agree with me”.

According to Prof. Dr. Chernigovskaya, civilization will end up with either most people living in extreme poverty or in extreme idleness because machines and programmes will be doing everything for us.

“What do we do then? What do billions of people do, if mechanisms are to do the entire job?”

People are disoriented today and we need something concrete in life to be able to survive. In our world, where fake products are sometimes better than real ones there are many cyber threats. There are AIs capable of producing news and learning faster than we do and not because of the ability to calculate combinations and possibilities, but because of being able to have insights as we do.

We should “slow down” and think it over

The question is “how to live in this world” and the professor attempted to answer it: why do we need to learn everything by heart?

“Why would anyone need to learn the logarithmical table? We should learn by understanding, not by simply remembering. But we should be training incompetent amateur that are only capable of opening Wikipedia. I wouldn’t want a doctor like that treating me or an architect like that planning buildings”.

Children must be taught how to adapt to change. Changes shouldn’t be shocking for them, because they happen all the time and they should always be ready.

“It is necessary to teach children how to verify the information. We only give students links to sites where the information is reliable. We need to teach people how to learn and resist stress. They should not be deeply neurotic about getting a "B" instead of an "A". One day they get a "B," the next day they get a Nobel Prize. I mean, if you get the wrong grade, it doesn't mean anything except that now you've got it. And we, of course, have to learn to live in this digital world and not lose our humanity. We need to agree on how not to lose basic notions of reality and control over it. This world needs to be sorted out and new rules need to be written. And we don't need to add social chaos to a "shifting" world”.