Cognitive Artifacts: Complementary & Competitive

Last year, I watched a thought-provoking talk from David Krakauer (president of the Santa Fe Institute), and from it I learned a mental model about tools or what he called “cognitive artifacts”. He breaks down tools into two categories, one that improves our skills when not using them, and another that diminishes our skills to complete the tasks we assign them to.

Paraphrasing a portion of the talk here:

Complementary artifacts (piano, abacus, paper maps, etc.) work with you to increase your skill such that the artifact becomes easier to use and that you become more expert without it.

Competitive artifacts (cellphones, Google Maps, ChatGPT, etc.) also get easier to use, but you become less expert without it. I’m better at using my iPhone today than I was 10 years ago, but my level of expertise has diminished in any task I assign it to (e.g. remembering phone numbers).

We’re challenged by the limits of our own paleolithic brain, so we invest in better and better tools. The tools that we have historically created have been extraordinary in increasing our expertise when they’re not present. But we’re moving into a world where I think the danger is not an AI that will turn us into a battery, but an AI that will turn us into a jellyfish.

The tradeoff with competitive artifacts is interesting, particularly in how the consequences are becoming more visible in ourselves and in our society. It isn’t just that AI systems rely on our digital exhaust as a source of energy (turning us into a battery). It’s also that our impulsive usage of those systems will lead to atrophy and diminishment of critical thinking (turning us into a jellyfish).