Human Digital Intelligence

Human Digital Intelligence  

Kim Solez, M.D., Thomas L. Lincoln, M.D., and Sheila Moriber Katz M.D., M.B.A.

There is no question that the collection, exchange and integration of information, and particularly electronic information, has become a dominant focus of our Western world, and it is gaining increasing importance as we face sudden and unexpected threats.

We have lived rather comfortably in a fragmented digital world. Over the past 30 years, thanks to the transistor, the chip and the computer, we have advanced from fax machines to cellular telephones to electronic funds transfer and on to the World Wide Web world for personal and business communication. It has been an exciting set of changes, and, like the advent of railroads and electricity, not very orderly. In medicine alone, CAT scans, MRIs and numerous other diagnostic techniques have transformed an entire profession. Our media are hardly recognizable if we look back to the middle of the last century. However, most recently, the dark side of communication has served to coordinate a frontal attack on Western civilization itself. As the Romans learned, to their surprise and consternation, building roads to the barbarians allowed those same barbarians to march down the roads and sack their cities.

Until now, nearly all of the attention has been directed toward the impact of the digital transformation on our daily lives, ignoring the human characteristics necessary to cope with the integration. It takes a different way of thinking to surmount the fragmentation that dominates this new environment. It takes a different mindset to cope with the awkwardness that comes when we leave the predefined routes on the major information highways. Following the lead of the small children who master the most obscure features of programmable VCRs, we must develop digital intelligence -- a new type of intelligence relevant to the digital millennium.

The technology does not lead itself. It takes human leadership and digital intelligence. Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina describes the world as entering a "digital renaissance,” a time when emerging technologies and an "always-on" Internet will transform human experience and entire industries. A future digital direction is set – and indeed now much enhanced by recent events. Unlike anthrax spores hidden in postal communications, a computer virus in an electronic message is not dangerous to human health. Teleconferencing of all varieties involves less lost time, less risk, and less hassle (not to mention less cost and environmental pollution) than our recently growing penchant for ever more face to face meetings across the country and the world.

We have come to recognize that there is no single IQ. Different people develop different talents, partly from innate ability and partly the result of practice and hard work. The best and the brightest take many forms. Howard Gardner of Harvard Graduate School of Education has described eight different types of human intelligence: linguistic, logical-mathematical, musical, spatial, bodily kinesthetic, interpersonal, intra-personal, and naturalistic. Gardner insists on rigorous criteria for each intelligence, including the two particularly difficult tests: potential isolation by brain damage and the existence of idiot-savants, prodigies, and other exceptional individuals. We can easily recall outstanding individuals who exemplify most of these different types of intelligence. Daniel Goleman of Rutgers University’s Graduate School of Applied and Professional Psychology has added a ninth form of intelligence:emotional intelligence, an ability to consistently make value judgments appropriate to the situation. Today, facing a new challenge, we add a tenth form of intelligence: Digital intelligence.

Digital intelligence is not just about computers. Fishermen in rural India using cell phones to negotiate a better price for their fish may never have seen a conventional computer, but are using digital intelligence. A six year old child who has no particular understanding of the inner workings of the VCR, but who has the right mind-set to use it properly also has digital intelligence, easily absorbed at that age from our new surroundings.

Currently, there are three definitions of digital intelligence. Each involves a different use of the word intelligence: 1) the meaningful data contained in digital networks themselves; 2) the kinds of information a surveillance or spy system might accumulate about activities using new digital technologies; 3) an emerging form of human intelligence that can process such digital information effectively. This new intelligence requires a full acceptance of our new technologies - a focus on logical statements, a strong multitasking ability, an ability to identify and take advantage of potential connections, and an ability to separate information into transformable chunks and to reassemble them to new purposes.

Digital intelligence meets all of Gardner's rigorous criteria for an intelligence, and therefore qualifies as the tenth form of human intelligence. In a recent study of multitasking psychology, Joshua Rubinstein, a researcher formerly of the University of Michigan and now with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) working on security issues, has shown that most people lose time and are less efficient when switching between tasks. By contrast, a person with high digital intelligence is not only able to seamlessly switch tasks but also to do two tasks at once, such as singing a familiar song to a child while planning a new business strategy. An ability to identify and take advantage of potential connections is another attribute of digital intelligence. Tim Berners-Lee, the creator of the first World Wide Web prototype, sees the long term outcome of the Web as the creation of a much more interwoven society, with a fine meshwork of interconnections to everything. It will be very different from the present “bunches of grapes” society, characterized as such because it still contains many isolated structures within larger structures, with limited interconnections.

John Seely Brown, Chief Scientist of Xerox Corporation and the Director of its Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), has focused on the peculiar way in which digital intelligence deals with transformable chunks of knowledge: Reasoning in the digital age has much to do with "bricolage,” originally a French expression for the improvisational use of materials readily at hand in such things as repairs around the home. This word was elevated by Levi Strauss many years ago to a term describing more advanced mental problem-solving, associated with the ability to find an object, tool, piece of code, document, etc. and to use it in a new way and in a new context. This practice of transforming 'found' materials by incorporating them into a new work is typical of today's computer systems, which are built up mainly through bricolage - by cobbling or "wiring" together code fragments and extending or modifying such fragments when necessary. However if one is going to become a successful bricoleur of the 21st Century, decisions will have to be made as to whether existing technology and applications should be borrowed and used, or whether new parts should be developed. The ability to carry out a successful assemblage is a defining ingredient of digital intelligence.

It is interesting to note how many very successful programmers and computing system designers are accomplished musicians or chess players. All three talents involve a strong, overriding conceptual sense of deep order, and the ability to reduce this insight to sequential steps or acts. Technical writer and musician Eric Peterson has written about the logical statements characteristic of digital intelligence; statements which present data in a computer-like orderly fashion. An individual with strong digital intelligence may be more likely to step up to the McDonald’s order window and say "Quarter pounder, medium fries, and a large Coke to go” - as opposed to the more common, "Um, I think I'll, wait, I'll have the..."

There is a type of brain-damaged patient who can keep all the functions of intelligence intact but lose the 'essential executive.' Individuals with prefrontal cortex damage have trouble doing task switching. Exceptional individuals certainly exist. We can consider Tim Berners-Lee is an individual who exemplifies the difference between digital intelligence and other more familiar forms. He is purported to have a particularly poor ability to remember names and faces, and this was part of his motivation for creating the first local Web as a memory aid to link and locate scientific documents at CERN in Geneva. We also see the idiot savant equivalent, the "retarded" individual with special skills on the computer.

Integrated digital intelligence will be used for more than the improvement of lives throughout the world and the prevention of catastrophic errors. It will also be used to combat those who are seeking to destroy parts of our global society through the same medium. A particularly egregious example of isolated intelligence and missed electronic cues was the shooting down of Iran Air flight 655 by the U.S. cruiser Vincennes on July 3, 1988 with the loss of more than 290 lives. Improved and integrated digital intelligence will help to prevent similar disasters in the future.

Although the digital age is new, the kind of intelligence needed to cope with it has been evolving throughout human history. The capacity for rapid task switching, recognizing connectedness, and creating logical statements, together with improvisation and bricolage have always conferred evolutionary advantage. Consider tools -- they led to potent Darwinian selection of gait, hand, eye and brain. They contributed to survival through farming and industry. Now consider computers -- they are destined to be a factor in the continued evolution of digital intelligence. And digital intelligence is destined to be a factor in the future of our global society.

As we move through the 21st Century and beyond, the "digital renaissance" will profoundly remodel us, culturally, physically and intellectually. Digital intelligence will be the force behind it.


Copyright © 2002-2011 cyberMedicine. All rights reserved. 
Last Modified:  January 14, 2011