Monday, July 25, 2016

Bitcoin is a Complementary Cognitive Artifact

I listened to a fascinating Sam Harris podcast recently that I would highly recommend to anyone. It is a discussion with David Krakauer of the Santa Fe Institute about a wide variety of topics related to information and intelligence. One of these topics is the idea of a complementary cognitive artifact

Cognitive Artifacts
Technology is a very broad term that we use to describe everything from the first hand axes built by homo habilis to open skulls to the most sophisticated computers. The knowledge of how to build this technology gets passed through culture and language, literally manipulating the brain of the person receiving this knowledge and giving the recipient the ability to use that technology in his own life. This knowledge is a cognitive artifact of that culture that in some cases has survived thousands or tens of thousands of years.

There are two broad categories of cognitive artifacts, competitive and complementary. A competitive cognitive artifact is something that replaces the human function in the brain altogether and generally does it much better, like a calculator or a car or a chess computer. When you use these types of cultural artifacts to replace your brain function, that function atrophies.

A complementary cognitive artifact does the opposite, using it expands your brains capacity. Take the abacus vs. the calculator. Using an abacus actually makes you better at calculations, not worse. Expert abacus users can run large calculations in their head because they have the machinery assimilated into their visual cortex. A map is another complementary cognitive artifact, as you can use a map to understand a landscape and even use your knowledge of maps to acquire knowledge of other things; e.g. a graph of revenue vs time makes use of the Cartesian plane.

Another example mentioned tangentially though not discussed at large is mneumonics, Memorizing things is actually very easy if you know how to do it, though it is not taught in school. There are memory competitions all over the world where people use techniques discussed in Moonwalking with Einstein, a book worth reading if you ever plan on memorizing anything in the future.

Bitcoin as a Complementary Cognitive Artifact
The Bitcoin code has a number of different concepts in it that represent complementary cognitive artifacts. Of course it is built on top of previously created artifacts like proof of work, elliptic curve cryptography, merkle trees, game theory, etc. There were also a few created by Satoshi that have since been used elsewhere, the most well known of which is blockchain.

The truth is that we are really just getting started with blockchain. Soon enough blockchain will be incorporated into the data structure everywhere that information is shared between entities that would prefer not to have to trust each other.

The Future of Human Organization
Another item mentioned on the podcast was government structure and how it will necessarily change as a result of modern technology. This is another area that I wish would have been discussed further but too much to discuss!

Krakauer said that the kinds of social networks that we lived in during the development of the nation state are fundamentally different from the types of networks that we have now through technology. I would have been very interested to hear his thoughts on how to do it better.

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