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Different Challenges, Different Teachers: Tatiana Chernigovskaya on Challenges of Digital Age

Вторник 20 Ferbruary Scientific discoveries

Today’s computers allow us to conduct the most complex genomic research, and specialized software has long bested humans at chess and Go. Still, though we’ve lost to machines in terms of processing speed, our brain still exceeds the most powerful computers in terms of complexity. But do we really know how it works? And how can we apply this knowledge in the conditions of the ever-changing environment? Tatiana Chernigovskaya, Head of St. Petersburg State University’s Department of the Problems of Convergence in Natural Sciences and Humanities, talked about the new challenges in cognitive science during an open lecture at ITMO University.

Challenges of the Digital Age

I have recently attended a session of the Nikitsky Club in Moscow. Few know what that is, though many might have heard of the Club of Rome, of which Sergey Kapitsa was once a member. Last December, the Club of Rome published its report on the current state of global affairs; this report was the topic of discussion at the recent Nikitsky Club session.

The report’s authors speak about anthropocene - the new geological time period. In a sense, this is the continuation of Vladimir Vernadsky’s noosphere concept, but today we’re dealing with a much more severe situation, as the humanity’s effect on the planet has become overwhelming to the point of endangering it.

The report also expands on the consequences of the onset of the Digital Age. We all understand that there’s no way for us to escape it, that it has already shaped the world we live in. Arguing whether it’s good or bad is useless; still, we have to consider the dangers associated with the new paradigm.


There are two terms that describe the current situation really well. First of all, the world is no longer “human-dimensional”. What does that mean? We entrust more and more of our functions to artificial systems. And these systems work at speeds superior to that of living beings. No life exists in terms of nanoseconds or nanometers, but machines can make decisions in such a short time that we wouldn’t even notice it.

Another term that is actively being discussed on different levels is the “civilization of idleness”. We are all aware that in the coming years - not even 20 or 12, but five or maybe less - a great number of people will no longer have place on the labor market. Lots of processes will be automated: plants that once offered jobs for scores of people will be operated by a couple dozen specialists focusing on system maintenance. Conventional legal operations will be conducted by computer systems, as well; in fact, there’s a whole lot of examples of this, and we are already witnessing the signs of things to come.

So, what will all these “free” people do? If you believe that they’ll be playing lutes, writing sonnets and painting pictures, I have bad news for you you. In fact, this is a most important anthropological problem, and it has more to do with psychology than technology. Back in 1930-s, Aldous Huxley wrote that "armaments and economic nationalism are the social symptoms of a malady whose seat is in the minds [...] the fundamental need is therefore for a World Psychological Conference.". Of course the point here is not about some actual congress, but that if the humanity were to go mad, nothing else would matter anymore.


The most complex system

In terms of processing speed, artificial systems have surpassed the human brain a long time ago; modern computers perform no less than a trillion operations a second. Nevertheless, our brain is still a lot more complex than any machine.

The brain is an incredibly complex neural network that we have no power over. It records everything we see, and has nothing in similar with some storeroom, library, or register; it is living tissue that constantly overwrites itself. Just as you can't step into the same river twice, you can't recall a memory exactly as you did before. The complexity of the human brain is indeed limitless.So, why it is so important to know more about our brain? Naturally, medical concerns are the most important issue. A while back, specialists in the US began to seriously consider the possibility of a mental disease pandemic. The amount of people suffering from psychiatric disorders is rapidly growing; there’s a risk that, in the nearest years, there’ll be more people suffering from depression than from oncological and cardiovascular diseases. This is a serious problem, and knowing more about the brain can really help with it.


It would be good to learn more about how complex systems function, and the most complex system is right here in our heads. If we were to understand how it functions despite its complexity, that would be most beneficial for many fields of human knowledge.

But a natural-sciences approach to studying conscience is a very hard and perilous path. There are many questions here that we are yet to answer. How do we make decisions? Are we really “conscious” of them? It often happens that we put much thought into something and then make the opposite choice. Why? What is the cause of this? We can’t avoid answering such questions, as the very function of our society depends on such issues.


Cognitive science and interdisciplinary thinking

The cognitive science I’m involved in envelopes philosophy, neurobiology, psychology, linguistics, and theory of artificial intelligence - at the very least.

It is an interdisciplinary field that provides a whole new outlook. It is we, people, who invented sciences like physics, chemistry, biology and linguistics; yet, there’s no such distinct division in nature. Prior to modern science, there was “natural philosophy” - the study of nature; it was only later that scientists started to focus on particular fields. Yet, this time is about to end, as well. We are now entering a new stage in which studying a particular field on a sufficient level implies an interdisciplinary approach.


The pluridisciplinary and convergent nature of modern science comes with particular issues. At the very least, communicating with people who specialize in different fields can pose a problem, so one needs special training to effectively communicate in a common language. Soft skills play a major role here, as well as the ability to retrain, to be open to new ideas, and to listen to others’ opinions.

Different challenges, different teachers

That said, it has become clear that we can to longer teach like we used to. Today, we need a different kind of teachers, not just those who simply transfer knowledge. Let me give you an example. When I was still in my first year of university, we had a lector who did the following: she wrote a small book the size of a course paper, and when we had lectures, she just opened it and read. Every time she did that, I wondered: “If I didn’t know how to read, how could I be here? And if I do, then why am I coming here from across the city just to listen to her read?” I could’ve stayed at home and read that book myself in some half an hour.


In modern times, it has become clear that we have no need for such teachers, especially when we’re dealing with a flood of fake information. You can get almost any answer just by saying “OK Google,” but you can’t really trust every piece of information you get. Therefore, we need teachers who can point you to the reliable sources you can use to study a particular science. This is why online courses, as good as they are, can only be a source of supplementary education; studying under a living person, a particular personality, is far more effective still.

Most importantly, modern teachers have to teach their students to learn and use their memory, as well as deal with stress and multitasking. How do I properly search for information when there’s so much of it? How do I manage my attention and memory, and efficiently classify and store information? You may believe that you’ve already learned to do that; personally, I wouldn’t say that I did. While we were talking, some 50 new articles have been published in every field of science I work in, and I will never have the time to read them all.


It is important to understand that learning has an effect on your brain: if you don’t feed it complex tasks, it won’t work efficiently. Complexity here is different for everyone. Be it proving some theorem you don’t understand, learning a dead language or solving a crossword puzzle, it is getting your brain to work that matters.

You can see Tatiana Chernigovskaya’s full lecture in Russian here.