Cognitive Enhancement on the (Pokémon) Go

First-generation augmented reality games are harbingers of better mind-expanding tools

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The Pokémon Go craze highlights how digital devices grab hold of our minds—and don’t let go. Images of well-dressed people hunched over smartphones, staggering dangerously along city streets, riveted by the appearance onscreen of imaginary characters set in their visible terrain, epitomize what’s gone wrong with our computer-mediated world.

Think again.

Sneering at Pokémon Go is misguided. The new gaming experience, while providing only a pale version of augmented reality, suggests that in the future, digital devices will expand our minds and improve our decision making. In a competitive world, tools that make us smarter—and aren’t physically invasive or addictive—will receive a warm welcome, especially because they seem safer than either genetic engineering of our brains or regular ingestion of pharmaceuticals.

Remember the drug “soma” of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World? Biochemical compounds are physically addictive, while switching off your smartphone never causes nausea.

Government regulations on drugs mean years, if not decades, of safety studies. Legal barriers to mind-expanding drugs shift only slowly. Meanwhile, digital pathways to cognitive enhancement [pdf] (CE) such as the brain-training site Lumosity and behavior-modification games such as SuperBetter quickly gain market acceptance.

Cynics can dismiss Pokémon Go as a waste of time, but the pursuit of computer-aided intelligence [pdf] is not. The new Pokémon exploits the sweet spot in enhancement technologies: mobility. We think best when we are in motion. Walking, running, even yoga are associated with improved cognition [pdf]. Devices that move with us—and in real time elevate the quality of our decisions, and our grasp of the world around us—suit us well.

Game simulators, however useful, strap down players, cocooning them in an unnatural, digital pod. Minecraft, for instance, helps people learn by rehearsing actions, but it constrains players physically and mentally. In the real world, humans make hard decisions on the fly, creatively responding to ever-shifting environments and social settings. They must analyze and improvise in motion.

The trick is to provide relevant information almost as fast as the human mind probes, searches, and settles on the “right” answers.

Mobile CE works best on the premise that your mind should be freed up to tackle the hardest problems, leaving routine cognitive tasks to computers. Microsoft’s newest version of Word, for instance, promises to find the relevant quotes, citable sources, and images—without your leaving the document. The less time you spend hunting, the more time you have to think creatively. Similarly, Pandora automates the process of choosing music. Evernote helps you recall your to-do list. Google’s timely facts strengthen your arguments. These digital tools help you finish your thoughts, so you become better prepared and more confident in your decisions.

Individuals may differ over digital paths to CE. But if an entire civilization embraces enhancement, the world advances. The visionary H.G. Wells drew on this hope when, in 1937, he envisioned a networked encyclopedia, stored on microfilm, that would act as a “mental clearing house for the mind.”

Wells’s “world brain” was stationary: tethered intelligence. Even he couldn’t imagine tetherless sources of knowledge that easily and instantly support effective decisions. Today’s digital tools, from Google Search to smartphones and sensor data, increasingly provide intelligence on the move.

And because we humans are fundamentally restless minds in motion, we are on the verge of a great leap forward in the quality of our purposeful thought, both individual and collective.

Thank Pokémon Go for helping us get there.

About the Author

G. Pascal Zachary is a professor of practice at Arizona State University’s School for the Future of Innovation in Society.

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