Will People Stand Civilization Breakdown?
How do people survive in today’s rapidly changing and unstable world? How does the environment affect the human brain? What awaits humanity in the future? Tatyana Chernigovskaya, a neurolinguist, focused on these questions in her lecture titled ‘Civilization Breakdown. Will Neural and Social Networks Survive?’ The lecture was prepared within the project implemented together with the Russian House in Barcelona.
Honorary Scientist of Russia, Corresponding Member of the Russian Academy of Education, PhD in Biology, PhD in Philology, professor of the Department of General Linguistics, Head of the Department of the Problems of Convergence in Natural Sciences and Humanities, Head of the Laboratory for Cognitive Studies at St. Petersburg State University
Tatyana Chernigovskaya finds today’s world incredibly complex for people. Although certain instability has always taken place, people have never lived under the conditions of such an enormous rate of change before. Those processes that used to take thousands of years, then centuries and decades, can last only one day today. Gadgets are the most illustrative example. They become obsolete very quickly because models with new features are constantly appearing.
In a changing environment, it becomes more difficult for people to perceive and generate meanings that depend on a multitude of causes and factors. Light, atmosphere, mood, life and professional experience, level of interest, and other aspects necessarily affect the interpretation of the information that our brain receives. The faster the changes around and within us take place, the more difficult it becomes to work with meanings.
The way we perceived Anna Karenina when we read it at school and the way we perceive it now are completely different despite the fact that the book remains the same. Isn’t that an amazing ability of our brain?
The violation of all the arrangements and habitual phenomena is another challenge of modernity. Tatyana Chernigovskaya recalled one of her favourite books: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. According to the expert, that fairy tale story vividly illustrates the world, in which all the laws and rules are violated. The usual way of life is turned upside down there. A new reality is appearing, the one in which humanity finds itself today. Tatyana Chernigovskaya emphasized the appearance of that transformation not because of the pandemic but for some other reasons some time before it. The COVID-19 crisis that has spread throughout the planet has only become the final point of that process. Thus, it destroyed all chances for humanity to return to the familiar past world.
The ability to verify has disappeared. Modern technology made it possible to create copies of various material and informational products. It has become extremely difficult for people to distinguish truth from fiction and original from fake.
All those challenges inevitably make an imprint on the human brain. The main question is about the way how a person manages to survive in such a difficult reality.
Most Complex Device in the World
People have the most complex ‘device’ that one can imagine inside their heads: the brain. Each of us is born with a biologically identical neural network. Although its further development largely depends on the events and social environment in every individual’s life, the brain of a fool and that of a genius are the same complex system.
There are more than 1000 kinds of neurons in our heads. Each of them can occupy five positions. They form a quadrillion synaptic connections. According to scientists, if it were possible to arrange all the neurons of one person’s brain into a long line, it would be 2.8 million kilometres. That distance is enough to fly around the Earth 68 times or fly 7 times to the Moon.
When speaking about the brain and neural networks, the so-called ‘hyperastronomical’ numbers often arise. There are not even exact words to describe those numbers.
It is difficult to imagine how thoughts can move through such a tangled network. Tatyana Chernigovskaya tried to explain in simple language how complex processes can occur in the head when a person does even simple things. When the teacher shows the children what glasses are, a picture of the object appears in the students’ minds, which is then connected to the word denoting it. When the teacher puts several things on the table and asks to find glasses, the process goes in the opposite direction. The information from the ‘word’ cell is correlated with the ‘picture’ cell through neural connections. However, these cells are included in a system consisting of a fantastic number of connections.
Social and Neural Networks
When studying the brain, scientists primarily talk about neural networks. However, it must be said that all human life is closely interconnected. For example, there are social networks. In the process of life, a person makes a lot of acquaintances, thus establishing contacts with people, organisations, and other social groups.
Neuroscience has a concept of the so-called Dunbar’s number. It presupposes an admissible number of social contacts of a living being based on the size of its brain. For example, the size of an acceptable social group of monkeys is 50 with the closest circle limited to 3-4.
People, according to Dunbar's number, can have the optimal social group consisting of 150 people with the closest circle limited to 12-15 people. However, if you look into our gadgets, you can see thousands of contacts.
It is physically impossible to remember the amount of information contained in computers and telephones. This information can’t be kept in mind for a long time. Therefore, modern society faces another challenge: the collapse of social structures.
Neuroethics and Neurojurisprudence
Today’s world is in a state of total failure of legal and ethical norms. New technologies are developing so rapidly that they are unable to fit logically into existing laws and regulations.
Who is responsible if a self-driving car hits a person? Who is the author of a work created by a robot? There are so many questions of that kind. They are only to be answered. Otherwise, further existence of mankind will be impossible.
Tatyana Chernigovskaya told what she knew from a conversation with experts working on the training of artificial neural networks. Their first serious concern arose when one of the programmes started learning at an incredible rate: a hundred times faster than a human could only think. The second wake-up call was a moment when two systems invented a mathematical language to communicate with each other, which was incomprehensible to humans.
“I asked the experts about what they did when they saw such ‘independence’ in the machines. They said they turned them off. This shows that not only society but also scientists themselves are not yet ready for such a rapid development of technology”.
Experiments with the brain and genome are a separate topic of discussion. One of the most widely discussed stories concerned the implantation of a chip in the head of a pig. It is very likely that a similar procedure could be applied to people in the near future.
On the one hand, this is a great scientific achievement with its undoubted advantages. For example, after a serious illness, a person is paralyzed and implanting a chip helps him or her perform certain actions. This is miraculous salvation for millions of people.
On the other hand, it is important to understand that you can use a knife to cut cheese or to kill a person as well. Already now there is the concept of ‘neurohacking’. If information can be uploaded into a person’s brain through a chip, then it can also be downloaded from it. To prevent such things from happening, new rules and laws must be formulated and thought through carefully.
The UN is already carrying out serious international work to formulate ethical norms for brain research.
Education in the New Reality
It is commonly believed that today’s children born in the technological age have completely different brains. In fact, their brains are the same as those of their parents and grandparents. It takes much longer to rebuild the biological system. However, these children enter the digital world much faster. This raises a number of questions. What and how should we teach the new generation? What kind of teachers do children need?
Last spring, in the midst of the pandemic, almost all educational institutions in Russia switched to online mode. Although everyone was well aware that live communication is the most effective way to transfer knowledge, there was no way to fix the situation. In the new conditions, digital technologies became the only way to safely establish communication and allowed to solve a number of problems.
Teachers themselves had to learn a lot of things: how to present information properly through a monitor and how to interest and hold the attention of schoolchildren and students. In addition, it became difficult to calculate the norms of a person’s stay at the computer. Earlier experts said that it is harmful for a child to sit in front of the screen longer than a specified time. However, in new conditions, similar recommendations turned out to be useless.
Online education is a complicated and controversial process. If humanity plans to continue this practice, it is necessary to work out new rules and norms and look for answers to a number of questions.
According to Tatyana Chernigovskaya, today everything leads to the fact that the world needs education of understanding, not memorization. Society doesn’t need specialists who memorize information. The world needs the ones who will understand and think. However, a person who knows no facts and relies only on logic and intuition is a poor specialist. Imagine a doctor who is not fluent in anatomy and is looking for information in a reference book or on the net while seeing a patient...
One needs knowledge combined with understanding but it should not be meaningless.
Tatyana Chernigovskaya believes that we should teach today’s children and youth to constantly change. The world is unstable and this is normal.
Finland with its school system recognized as the world’s best one has an interesting method of adapting to a changing world. The practice of ‘restructuring’ educational institutions is popular in the country. Students never know in what environment the lesson will take place: the colours of the walls, the arrangement of furniture in the classroom, and the number of students in the classroom are constantly changing.
Children get used to the fact that the world is unstable since their early years and changes do not make them neurotic.
Moreover, it is important to teach young people to verify information, to look for quality sources. Tatyana Chernigovskaya said that she had the rule to read materials of only authoritative authors. If a book or an article written by an unknown expert comes to her attention, Tatyana asks her colleagues and friends for their opinion about the specific author.
The ability to resist stress is another important skill of today. It is important to be able to live in a new world, which is not only digital but also quite closed. Although pandemic restrictions will gradually be cancelled, life will not be the same, believe many leading experts in different fields.
Thinking or Feeling?
The phrase ‘Cogito ergo sum’, which is translated as ‘I am thinking, therefore I exist’, can now be questioned, believes Tatyana Chernigovskaya. New technological inventions based on artificial intelligence systems are able to think logically many times faster and more accurately than humans do. They do not experience stress, do not need sleep or rest, and remember a huge amount of information. In this sense, machines are stronger than humans.
However, computers do not know how to feel. That’s the main difference and advantage of people. That is why the phrase ‘Sentio ergo sum’ (‘I am feeling, therefore I exist’) is much more relevant for modern reality.
According to Albert Einstein, “the intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant”. In his opinion, imagination is much more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited but imagination embraces the whole world, thus stimulating the process and generating evolution. Perhaps, this thought would not have attracted so much expert attention if it had been said by an artist rather than a physicist.
Even the great physicists and mathematicians were and are aware of the importance of creativity in the broadest sense of the word. That’s an important competitive advantage over any computational system.
The first blow to humanity tool place in 1996 when Deep Blue programme beat Garry Kasparov, chess world champion. The computer turned out many times stronger than the brain of one of the best players. The excitement soon faded away. People understood that the programme had been trained for playing against a specific person and knew absolutely everything about Garry Kasparov analyzing his every move and understanding how he would act. The chess player himself later said that if he had made a silly move during the game, it could have confused the programme.
In 2006, Deep Fritz system defeated another outstanding chess player Vladimir Kramnik. Then sceptical experts began to say that chess was a game too predictable for a computer. Soon Alpha Go appeared and beat the best player in Go board game. Later the programme Libratus won $1.8 million in poker. That was a serious challenge: the computer could surpass people in games where not only mathematical calculations are important for the first time.
Living in a New World
For more than a century, science has considered the brain as a highly complex device that receives information from the world and processes it. In other words, according to many scientists, it is a bio-automatic machine. However, in reality, the brain itself creates information and shapes worlds. This means that it makes no sense to study each individual neuron. It is much more important to understand how this complex device functions as a whole. According to Tatyana Chernigovskaya, creativity can help us in that.
“The more I think about whether we are going the right way and try to understand what a human being is, to what extent biology determines culture and vice versa, to what extent modern technologies affect the possibility of our success, the clearer the pattern and sound are, not the formula... It becomes increasingly clear what the genius Giya Kancheli called ‘complex simplicity’. The advice ‘don't run away from the rain’ formulated by Fanny Ardant becomes more understandable as well. Stop and live the moment”, says Tatyana Chernigovskaya.
The paths of art and science suddenly began to converge. Creativity made it possible for people to ‘compress’ time and thought.
Today, as never before, it is time to slow down and think about how to live in this complex world. Humanity needs to agree on the important issues: how not to lose basic ideas about reality and control over it. A transparent world inevitably leads to a revision of basic ethics, values, and meanings. We should not add chaos to an already chaotic life.
The world of every one of us today requires warmth and humanity.
Viktoria Yezhova, Global Women Media news agency
Translated by Nikolay Gavrilov