The courage to face what we do not understand

Sadly, it is easy to forget that what we know is all but a tiny fraction of all there is to know. Human beings naturally focus on what they understand. The more you learn, the stronger this phenomenon tends to be.

Irrespective of any biological mechanism, I believe that it is a form of “aging” in the sense that it makes you increasingly inflexible. The more you know, the less open you are to new experiences. In effect, the dumber you get.

Let us call this “cognitive rigidity”.

This almost seems unavoidable, doesn’t it?

I believe that there are at least three factors driving cognitive rigidity:

  • Economics often favor specialization. Suppose that you have been programming in Java for the last 5 years. You have an enormous advantage over anyone who starts out in Java. So you have every incentive to ignore new programming languages.
  • Skills and experience are often poorly transferable. For example, I speak fluently in French and English. If I try to learn Chinese, it will take me years of hard work just to catch up with a 6-year-old child born in China.
  • The more and longer you focus, the more likely you are to hit diminishing returns. There is very little difference between spending 5 years programming Java and spending 20 years doing the same.

What is interesting is that cognitive rigidity is an entirely general process.

For example, there is no reason to believe that an artificial intelligence would not suffer from cognitive rigidity. Suppose that you train a machine for some task over many years. The machine has gotten very good at it, and any small change is likely to make it worse at its job. At some point, the machine will stop learning. It has fallen into a “local extrema”. Yet it is possible for a whole other piece of software to come in and surpass the old machine because it starts from new assumptions. The old machine could have explored new assumptions, but that would have likely provided no gain.

Organizations, communities, and even whole countries might also be subject to cognitive rigidity. For example, IBM famously missed the PC revolution… then Microsoft nearly missed the Internet revolution, and squarely missed the mobile revolution.

Where we should be really concerned is that I believe humanity as a whole can fall victim to cognitive rigidity. I have recently “reinvented” myself as an advocate for techno-optimism. I did so when I realized that even among people who should know better, there was a massive failure of imagination. Even young computer scientists fall for it. I find that people universally imagine the future as the present, with a few more gadgets. Though I do not share the pessimism, it is not what troubles me. What troubles me is that people assume we have reached worthwhile extrema. We haven’t!

  • We do not know what intelligence is. We can emulate some of the human intelligence in computers. We can “measure” intelligence using IQ tests… but we do not know what it is. Not really. We can’t even reproduce the visual recognition abilities of a rodent, despite the fact that we have more than enough CPU cycles to do it. In a very fundamental way, we do not know anything about intelligence.
  • We are nowhere close to figuring out the laws of the universe. At a high level, we have two systems, quantum mechanics and relativity, that we glue together somehow. It is an ugly hack.
  • We really do not know much about biology. We have had the (nearly) complete human genome for many years now. So we can touch the binary code of life. We can change it. We can tune it. But we have no idea how it works. Not really. We don’t know why we age. We don’t know why we get cancers while other animals don’t.

    To make matters worse, there is a hidden form of cognitive rigidity when people consider biology. There is a strong assumption that whatever natural evolution produced, it must be ideal… and so tinkering with it is dangerous. For example, I was telling my neighbor about the existence of genes that make people stronger, or more resilient to cancer. His first reaction was that these genes must come at a sinister cost, otherwise we would all have them. This is, of course, a fallacy. You could equally say that whatever product has not yet been marketed must not be profitable, otherwise someone else would have already marketed it.

  • Our best practices in politics and economics are based on debatable heuristics that work “ok”, but they are probably nowhere close to being optimal. Alastair Reynolds in his novel Revelation Space depicts a high-advanced human society where people have adopted radically different forms of politics and economics. His novel hypothesizes that this lead to a surge of prosperity never seen before. Yet almost any debate that puts into question current politics is a non-starter. People simply assume that whatever they have must be the best that can be had.

So we have these giant gaps. What really worries me is how most people do not even see these huge gaps in our knowledge. And these are just the beginning of a long list. If you drill down on any given issue, you find that we know nothing, and we often know less than nothing.

I do not think that cognitive rigidity is unavoidable. I don’t think that there is a law that says that you have to fall prey to it. For example, while Intel has had every occasion to fall the way IBM and Microsoft did, it has time and time again been able to adopt new techniques. We still look at Intel today to determine whether Moore’s law is holding, 40 years after the law was written.

The key to progress is to have the courage to face what we do not understand. But it takes courage to face the unknown.

13 thoughts on “The courage to face what we do not understand”

  1. Didn’t Intel lose the mobile revolution just as Microsoft did? Afraid I’m not old enough to remember Intel ever re-inventing itself.

    1. Good point but when monitoring Moore’s law, we look at Intel processors. Intel has gotten stuck many times, and it has repeatedly bounced back with vigor. They do not feel “stuck in their ways”.

      1. Agreed, but IMHO the “diminishing returns” will have more to do with P!=NP than with local extrema.
        BTW, in case you haven’t read it, Design for a Brain isn’t really about designing a brain or other AI but about the properties of ALL self organizing systems, the system always “wins” but is not what you would expect…

  2. I disagree, at least a little, about transferable skills. The most valuable skills are intangible and transferable. Specific, objective, codified knowledge is not transferable, but it’s also easily commoditized. Knowledge of Java, per se, is a commodity. Knowledge of how software projects work is less tangible, more transferable, and more lucrative.

    1. What I mean by being transferable is that if you know English then you might think that this helps you with Latin. I think you allude to more generic or general skills as opposed to transferability. But even then, I would caution people that skills and knowledge are often less generic or general than it seems. And that’s a problem because people have the illusion of “knowing it all” when, in reality, their knowledge and expertise is far more limited. Someone may know a lot about how to build software for a web startup, but that might prove of little help when building software for embedded devices in an Internet-of-things setting or when building software for high performance computing. I think that no matter at what level you work in, it takes effort to remain “young” (avoid “cognitive rigidity”). To make matters worse, it may often make not economical sense to fight cognitive rigidity.

  3. I agree that it takes effort to remain flexible, and there are (short-term) economic incentives to not be flexible.

    It’s another efficiency-robustness trade-off. Specialization is efficient but not robust. In biological terms, a species that is too well adapted to its environment is likely to go extinct when the environment changes.

  4. “There is very little difference between spending 5 years programming Java and spending 20 years doing the same.”

    Do you have any stats to back this up? Having been a programmer for 35 years, I have seen some big ‘aha’ moments in my development as a programmer… But spaced out by 5, 10, or 15 years at a time. I can only speak for me, but I feel as if my productivity, achievements, and enjoyment have continued to increase as time has gone by.

  5. You write about people assuming that the way things are must naturally be for the best (I paraphrase), however, I would argue strongly that there is a “scientific bias” (also caused by our only focussing on what we know we know), that we can somehow know best. This leads us into such things as environmental damage, growing monocultures (and then using vast quantities of pesticide and herbicide) and other short sighted practices.

    There may be advantages in editing the human species to be longer lives, less prone to disease etc. There may also be disadvantages. We will surely discover those as we start editing, just as we have started to discover the shortcomings of editing our environment.

  6. Condet, East Jakarta is a traditional ‘Betawi’ area (the Betawi are thought to have been the original inhabitants of what is today a 20-million-strong megapolis) in the southeast corner of the city. I’ve lived here since 1988.

    In my early years I was amazed to meet energetic, apparently intelligent 18-year-olds who had practically never ventured beyond these local neighborhoods – and who saw nothing unusual about this. Their entire world was encompassed in the ‘kampung’ and this would naturally prove to be a titanic limitation in life, when asked to comprehend the world at large. For instance, Indonesia has millions of ‘TKI’, ‘guest workers’ in Hong Kong, Malaysia and the Arab east, and they must quickly learn to deal with an extremely alien environment. Many are abused, underpaid or driven to desperation (and crime) when they find themselves helpless in such a situation. Later I extrapolated this to attempt to understand the mindset of my fellow ‘hard-shell Baptist’ Texan kinfolks and acquaintances, people who had never bothered to travel or learn another language. I had personally had the blessing of being an ‘Air Force brat’, and lived in Bavaria during the Occupation in 1946 and 1948. I traveled extensively from my teens and attempted to integrate into alien European and Asian cultures. Later it was travel through psychedelics, including LSD – another experience impossible to describe to others or for them to attempt to comprehend. Somewhat reluctantly I attempted to fit into academia but also found that scene self-limiting, territorial, resistant to leaps of concept and generally suspicious of any proposition or experience which does not look backward. The current overt disinterest in and reluctance to accord credence to mystical experiences or extra-terrestrial sightings / encounters stands as another huge example of this (check out the YouTube video on retired USAF officers and UFOs interfering with nuclear weapons bunkers, in a presentation given at the National Press Club). Who is prepared to come face to face with alien beings? It’s going to be the ultimate test of what Daniel terms ‘cognitive rigidity’. I apologize for the long-winded exposition; this essay excited me because of my ongoing interest in and research into the phenomenon of ‘uncertainty avoidance vs. uncertainty tolerance’.

  7. I know where you’re coming from.

    Though I’m now at the point of retiring, I feel so lucky to have earned a very good living in an industry that has undergone massive changes and which has given me the opportunity to delve into so many interesting areas of research and technology and yet never become a part of any of them. I’ve talked at length to experts in almost every field of science and industry, and have travelled the world to record the things they’re working on. I trust therefore that I can say honestly that I’ve managed to keep an open mind, but have seen examples of what you’re talking about. And the more I’ve learned the more I’ve realised how little we know and the more there is still to learn.

    I’m a film maker who now grows trees and who, with my wife, provides holiday accommodation in barns I’ve converted myself.

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