Artificial intelligence and functional illiteracy


by Fr. Alfonso V. Amarante, CSsR
(from the Alphonsian Academy blog)

A few days ago, I saw my nephew’s handwriting and asked him why he had difficulty writing legibly. His answer was simple. “Uncle, I only use the keyboard of my smartphone or PC to write”.

This observation made me reflect on the correlation between artificial intelligence (AI) and functional illiteracy.

Artificial intelligence refers to the ‘discipline that studies whether and how the most complex mental processes can be reproduced through a computer. This research develops along two complementary paths: on the one hand, AI seeks to bring the functioning of computers closer to the capabilities of human intelligence, and on the other, it uses computer simulations to make hypotheses about the mechanisms used by the human mind’ (cf. Encyclopaedia Treccani)

In everyday talk, there is a tendency to identify Big Data, data mining, process mining, machine learning, and game theory with AI, separating decision-making power from competence.

The expression return illiteracy means: ‘An expression referring to that quota of literate people who, without the practice of alphanumeric skills, regress, losing the ability to use written language to formulate and understand messages’ (cf. Encyclopaedia Treccani).

With the passing of the years, we are witnessing functional illiteracy caused precisely by the massive use of technology. We can see a difficulty in handwriting development, the exercise of memory to remember things such as phone numbers or to do elementary operations that today are entrusted to machines that assist us daily. Suppose all this has simplified, and not a little, our lives at the same time. In that case, technology does not make us exercise skills learned with sacrifice and experience, risking forming generations without memory.

This phenomenon creates functional illiterates because, with time, by not practising knowledge and skills, one runs the risk of not even understanding what one reads and thus being unable to elaborate one’s own thoughts.

Backward or functional illiteracy is a great tool of power in the hands of technology giants – that is why one should not confuse AI with the generating and storing of data and its use – as some of today’s political forms that by giving quick answers to emotional needs, are then able to steer decisions. The plastic example could be news dissemination by influencers who manage to get their catchy thoughts across quickly through slogans, contradicting those who study phenomena and do not express opinions. When faced with this phenomenon, it is only possible to respond with long-life learning policies.

Faced with this problem, which concerns everyone, it is necessary to stimulate critical reflection and exercise one’s intelligence, not to rescind the critical and constructive use of our thinking.

(Original text is in Italian)

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