To extract genuine insights we need to invest our own energy in accumulating experiences and the critical thinking and reflection required to make sense of those experiences

“We can produce more information, but that means there’s more information for us to process. Our processing capability is the bottleneck.” – Gloria Mark, author of “Attention Span”

This passage comes from a May 28th, 2023 opinion piece by Ezra Klein published in print and podcast form in the New York Times with the title “Beyond the ‘Matrix’ Theory of the Mind.”

Klein addresses the limits of current iterations of AI as tools to increase productivity. As I was listening to his talk, though, I was reminded of something that may be even more fundamental.

Critical thinking is hard work. It consumes immense amounts of mental energy. Our brains have a limited capacity to do it. It is more likely to punish us with a headache than to reward us with a lightbulb, and we almost always experience a series of headaches on the path to the lightbulb.

Nonetheless, critical thinking is not something we can outsource to AI. The experience of reflecting on, analyzing and comparing one experience to other experiences yields practical knowledge that cannot be gained by other means.

And, as Klein points out, our current AIs are worse at critical thinking than we are. We may never be able to outsource our critical thinking completely to any AI system because the experience of insights is built on the critical thinking experience that is the engine of insight creation.

To get the most out of AI we need to strengthen the process though which both people and AIs convert information into knowledge, insights and wisdom. These are derived through ongoing cycles of information collection, interpretation (modeling), experience (testing), reflection (comparing experience to what is predicted by the model) and further interpretation (refining the model). Processing more information only produces more insights if the process is sound and the processors are not overwhelmed.

Even without access to AI, we human beings struggle to force ourselves to engage in genuine critical thinking. And even when we do our best to genuinely engage in it, there is no guarantee that we’ll always produce a better answer or get recognition for the effort. When given a choice between the frustration, angst and cortisol that accompany many stages of the critical thinking process versus the excitement, convenience and dopamine that come with pushing a button to get another quick information hit, we – like lab rats who have learned they can get a pellet of food by simply pushing a bar – are tempted to take the path of least resistance.

This is too bad because experience and reflection on experience are the engines of innovative problem solving and creativity. As Jobs put it:

“Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things. And the reason they were able to do that was that they’ve had more experiences or they have thought more about their experiences than other people. Unfortunately, that’s too rare a commodity. A lot of people in our industry haven’t had very diverse experiences. So they don’t have enough dots to connect, and they end up with very linear solutions without a broad perspective on the problem. The broader one’s understanding of the human experience, the better design we have.” (Steve Jobs, Wired, Feb 1995as quoted in The Polymath by Waqas Ahmed)

Unfortunately, the more we opt to accept easy, quick answers to our questions, the more we risk overlooking the genuine insights that can often only be gained through the energy intensive, disorienting experience of acknowledging we are not sure what is going on, then genuinely trying to figure out what data points we need to combine in what ways in order to understand things at least a little more clearly.

The good news is that the arduous path of insight production can also be very fulfilling and some stages of the process can be so fun that they leave us feeling giddy. And both the fulfillment and giddiness are often intensified when we travel the path with fellow seekers. Our investments in critical thinking often do reward us. It’s just that the reward comes later, so we have to make peace with delayed gratification, so we can keep on orienting and re-orienting ourselves when the journey gets rough or feels pointless.

Human brains make mistakes, but AIs make similar mistakes because it is humans that design them. Learning to make more sense of the world by working through those mistakes is probably something that AI can help us do more effectively, but we’ll still have to play an active role in the process. We may never to able to outsource this process completely by just pushing a button and expecting an AI or even another person to do all of the (sometimes hard) work of experiencing the world and using critical thinking to understand it for us.

To gain real insights we have to invest our personal energy in the insight production experience. It can be exciting, but it isn’t always easy, and we often have to push through periods of discomfort, disorientation and put up with a few headaches on the road to those exciting discoveries.

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