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  • Sarah Holliman

Are Smart Devices Making Us Dumb?

Smart devices are everywhere. But what are they doing to our own brains? With slight modifications, this blog, originally published on, offers opinions and insights on technologies today and how they are impacting our ability to think.

I used to have many phone numbers memorized. It was second nature to pick up the phone and dial someone’s number. Now the term “dial” even seems a little obsolete when it comes to phones. How many millennials have even seen a rotary phone with an actual dial? But it has made me start to wonder…is the ubiquitous use of smart devices making us actually think less?

I suppose that in some ways it was inevitable. Calculators made it possible for people to quickly arrive at answers to problems that previously took a lot of time and many steps to complete. And in much the same way, every technology that connects to another technology to give us immediate access to information we weren’t easily able to get otherwise, eliminates our need to use our brain to find it. Now I'm not saying this is a bad thing…but I do think it makes us a little lazier.

"...every technology that connects to another technology to give us immediate access to information we weren’t easily able to get otherwise, eliminates our need to use our brain to find it."

Case in point…one of my daughters has Type 1 diabetes. When she was diagnosed, we agonized over every meal; figuring out what she was planning to eat, counting the carbs in the meal, factoring out the fiber and then calculating the amount of insulin she’d need based on her current carb-to-insulin ratio to keep her blood sugar levels in check. In the beginning, I incessantly worried that we would give her too much insulin and send her in to diabetic shock or worse. Over time, we learned how to do it and got pretty good at calculating math in our heads…especially helpful for my then-11-year-old daughter. But as soon as she went on an insulin pump, we stopped having to actually do the math, and now if she takes a “pump break” I find myself having to really think…and it makes me nervous.

According to Gartner analysts, there will be 8.4 billion connected devices in use this year (up 31% since 2016, but nowhere near the 20.4 billion predicted by 2020). So what does that mean for all those (“dumb”) devices they are replacing? Don’t throw them out in favor of their smarter cousins just yet. Apparently there is an after-market for them…with $273 billion being invested in Internet of Things (IoT) services in this year alone, there may well already be a use for them. Take the Automatic Adapter for example. It plugs into any car’s (1996 or newer) standard diagnostics port, reads the car’s data and connects it to the cloud to give information about mileage, engine performance, trip history and even where you last parked. Good news for people like me with cars that are a little bit, well, dated…Or check out Emberlight. Don’t want to waste a perfectly good—albeit not necessarily energy efficient—lightbulb? Then plug it into an Emberlight socket, which you can control from anywhere in the world, providing an added level of security when you’re away from home. Neurio is another technology that seeks to give you “smart” information without having to replace your “dumb” appliances by connecting to a sensor that’s installed in your home’s breaker box. Over time, the sensor will recognize the “electronic signature” of each device and provide you with information that can help you save on energy costs…and ultimately may be able to identify if your kids are spending too much time playing on a connected device!

So, are the evolution of smart devices making us dumb? Well they are taking the guesswork out of many of the things we do, to be sure…but they are also giving us more “intelligence” than we would otherwise have, in some cases from machine learning and cognitive computing. Suffice it to say, there are technologies on the horizon that are solving problems we don’t even know exist yet! So yeah…I may not be able to do long division in my head quite as quickly, but I for one am excited about what the future holds in store.

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