The consequences of population growth. How technology is (literally) reshaping our brains

The Chinese government recently announced an ease on the one-child policy that has been implemented in the late 70’s in order to control the growth of the Chinese population. This measure has been extremely criticized as it has many effects, not only on the families, with many forced abortions on second unwanted children, but also on the society itself, as the labor force decreases (3.45 million in 2012) and the elderly population will reach one third of total by 2050. Why the Chinese leaders are conducting such demographic engineering?

Dan Brown's Inferno Book Cover

I recognize it, after being a hard reader before the university, I left myself quite a lot and didn’t read many books in the following 15 years. In order to change this, I bought a Kindle eBook reader. It significantly increased my average books read/year ratio, and also let me read many books in English. Not that I consider him a master of literacy, but I recently read Dan Brown’s Inferno. The main argument is about Robert Langdon fighting a scientific transhumanist organization wanting to control the population growth. Their argument, the exponential population growth will finally reach a limit where people will have to fight each others in order to survive for food and shelter, so better control it through massive kills before wars start to pop up everywhere.   Population has significantly increased in the past 200 years, from 1.000 million to 7.000 million actually. This exponential increase is basically due to the better life conditions (particularly potable water) and average life expectancy because of the advance of medical techniques. The graph is astonishing:

Population Growth from Wikipedia

Estimated size of human population from 10,000 BCE–2000 CE.

Dan Brown was right in the argument, well, almost. It seems  the growth rate will not be as huge as in the past, being about 0,5% annual rate in 2050.  So, for some reason, forced by governments (like Chinese) or naturally, the population will converge to a more sustainable growth rate:

Growth rate from Wikipedia

Growth rate of world population (1950–2050)

But this tendency, with a higher and higher life expectancy, means older people and smaller labor force. That’s why the Chinese government is relaxing the one child policy, a bit like the monetary authorities do with interest rates when inflation increases or decreases.

How technology is affected by this growth control? Let’s focus on what happened in the last 200 years. As I already mentioned in my first post, there is an interesting correlation between population growth and technology development.  Assuming (simplifying) that human intelligence is purely due to genetic causes so there is always an X% of population beyond a certain level of intelligence, the amount of high intelligent people in the planet would be increased by 7 in the last 200 years. But not only that, as people distribute themselves in generations (about 25 years each) we would have an increased number of intelligent people in every following generation, that is fed by the experience of the previous one. A little bit like artificial neural networks are organized:

The collective intelligence grows exponentially with population and communication improvement.

The collective intelligence grows exponentially with population and communication improvement.

But since technological evolution driven by the collective intelligence has improved communication, now every generation is connected with more and more people (in fact the 6 degrees of separation seem to be now less than 4), between them and with the following generations, so being more, we’re smarter, and being smarter we innovate more, in constant change. As a measure of innovation, like any other, let’s take the observation of the Moore’s Law (although it’s not a physical or natural law) about the number of transistors in a microprocessor, that doubles approximately every two years:

Moore Law

Transistor counts for integrated circuits plotted against their dates of introduction. The curve shows Moore’s law – the doubling of transistor counts every two years. The y-axis is logarithmic, so the line corresponds to exponential growth.

Technology is growing as our collective intelligence grows, in order to push its limits once and again. Is there a limit? Some authors say, like Ray Kurzweil, that about 2050, there will be a point where computing progress will be so rapid that it will outstrip humans’ ability to comprehend it. It’s what he called The Singularity.

Count Down to Singularity by Ray Kurzweil

In this irreversible point, people will augment their minds and bodies with genetic alterations, nanotechnology, and artificial intelligence. Although this scary cyborg future (if it’s true, most of us will live it) is still far, the truth is technology is already changing our brains.

Screenshot from Terminator 2

Recent study by researchers at Harvard University show that our children have less memory than their parents due to the new technologies where any answer is a couple of clicks away. It’s not anymore about storing something in our brains, it’s about knowing where that thing is stored outside our brains. This has a huge impact on brain development, since memorization in early ages highly contribute to the creation of new neuron synapses. So there is already a change in our beings due to technology, with consequences we’re not even close to understand, but with any doubt will have an impact on how we live, work, buy and consume. Are we ready for constant change?  


3 Comments on “The consequences of population growth. How technology is (literally) reshaping our brains”

  1. pauladkin says:

    You’ve raised a very interesting question here. Deep or high culture depends on memory: one’s culture basically is one’s memory. It is what we know that constitutes much of our real identity, as opposed to what is given us or imposed on us. I think it would also be interesting to include the effect of “power” in this equation, as “power” tends to stifle intelligence in society, through popular cultures (in the West) or slavish work conditions (in undeveloped or developing countries). It is in the interests of “power” that the vast majority do not ever start to think clearly for themselves about reality.

  2. […] different services and devices leverage on) is going to take us, we’re not even close to understand the impact of these technologies in our lives, as we couldn’t do it with social networks like Facebook. Maybe it’s time […]

  3. […] in a month, and I’m frankly scared of the kind of challenges he will face in a context where technology will literally be reshaping our brains.When the future is unpredictable, it’s obvious we have to go back to the basics, values that, […]


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