The approaching Smart Age, replete with internet-connected devices to make life easier in the home and office, may inadvertently lead to new forms of dementia. This is according to social futurist and chairman of the international London-based 2020Plus innovation think tank, Mal Fletcher.

While automating everything from driving to healthcare may bring huge benefits, it will also present challenges to human cognition. The lack of thinking skills which today typify dementia may become normal cognitive function within 20 years. This will present a bigger problem than underemployment in the automation age.

“We’ve already ceded very important mental skills to machines,” says Mal Fletcher, who researches and lectures globally on the human impact of new technologies. “These include arithmetical skills, plus those related to spelling, navigation and more recently memory.”

“We are building transactional relationships with machines. We tend not to remember what we learn on the internet. We rely on digital platforms and the algorithmic machines that drive them to remember for us. The information is not stored in our long-term memories and therefore produces no benefits in terms of innovation, because new ideas are always born out of mental connections between existing ideas.”

Already, Australian medicos report a rise in the numbers of people who fear that they may be developing dementia because they’re struggling to remember PIN numbers and passwords for multiple devices. This, says Fletcher, is just a very small taste of things to come.

The technology is not the problem. It is the fact that unless we are vigilant we will lose the capacity to perform important functions for ourselves, especially when it comes to our brains. Psychologists have already identified constant partial attention and absent presence - being in a group but engaged elsewhere, in cyberspace - as social problems directly linked to an over-reliance on automated technologies.

Though some reports suggest that automation and robotics will spell the end of 40 percent of Australian jobs in the next 20 years, digital automation will not mean the emergence of a post-human age.

“Automated technologies will create new kinds of jobs,” Mal Fletcher concludes. “However the big question is whether we will be mentally adept enough to make the tough transition from one way of working to a completely different one, quickly. If we don’t plan for it now, through training schemes and support systems, digital dementia will be a bigger problem than joblessness.”

Originally from Australia, Mal Fletcher is a leadership and innovation expert who now chairs the 2020Plus think tank in London. He regularly appears on BBC TV and radio and speaks to civic, political and community leaders internationally on the human impact of new technologies. He will present a series of lectures to civic leaders in Australia until June 2.

CONTACT: 2020Plus Media | T: 0424 037 566 | E:

© Copyright with Mal Fletcher

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