Ancient Scripts to AI Writing Machines: A Brain 5000 years in the making
Dec 18, 2023
Welcome to a multi part series by Minh Do, our Head of Research & Innovation. The upcoming posts in this series will be a retrospective on the past to the future, spanning across key topics that affect our pursuit of knowledge and innovation.
The latest advances in AI have the potential to completely alter the way we view writing. Let's take a look at the history of writing over the past 5,000 years and how AI changes how we view writing, memory, and civilization.
Our ancestors and the invention of writing
The first evidence of human writing was in 3200 BCE in ancient Sumeria. Humans have been writing for over 5,000 years. And what did people write? It was “used for mundane bookkeeping or scribal exercises”. In simpler terms, used for managing and organizing things, like bureaucracy. It was a practical tool for an ancient problem.
Over the centuries, the use of writing has exploded into millions of use cases.
Plato was skeptical of what writing would do. In Phaedrus, a dialogue between two characters leads to this soliloquy: "For this invention will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it, because they will not practice their memory. Their trust in writing, produced by external characters which are no part of themselves, will discourage the use of their own memory within them. You have invented an elixir not of memory, but of reminding; and you offer your pupils the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom, for they will read many things without instruction and will therefore seem to know many things, when they are for the most part ignorant and hard to get along with, since they are not wise, but only appear wise."
The quote still resonates today while unaware of the emergent and exponential consequences of literacy and the power that writing would unlock for societies. Who knew that writing would give humanity a way to time travel, allowing us to communicate with our descendants? Plato likely didn’t realize writing would immortalize him.
Writing also unlocked worlds for humanity. As the ancient Babylonian saying from 1800 BCE goes, “Writing is the mother of eloquence and the father of artists." It doesn’t just unlock memory and communication, it also unlocks creativity.
The invention of the printing press and the beginning of modernity
The next big unlock for the written word was the Gutenberg printing press. Of course, setting aside the innovations of the pen, paper, and typewriter. As Marshal McLuhan articulates: “[The printing press] created — almost overnight it created — what we call a nationalism, what in effect was a public. The old manuscript forms were not sufficiently powerful instruments of technology to create publics in the sense that print was able to do — unified, homogeneous, reading publics.” The printing press united large groups of people in a way we’d never seen before. It allowed us to interact with big ideas across massive architectures of people.
Not only the scale effects of the printing press, but also the approach to the technology was deep. “Typography as the first mechanization of a handicraft is itself the perfect instance not of a new knowledge, but of applied knowledge…Typography tended to alter language from a means of perception and exploration to a portable commodity.” No doubt this has changed the way we approach ideas. After the printing press, there were explosions in literacy, education, and the spread of ideas.
From the invention of writing 5,000 years ago to the printing press almost 600 years ago approaches to knowledge shape how we view knowledge in the digital world. We take a skeuomorphic lens to how we view our thoughts: notebooks, pencils, and erasers.
A Digital Leap
Alan Turing set in motion, with the transistor, a whole new paradigm: digital. An era we still live in today. In the midst of all the potential innovations, word processing was one of the first because of course, the minute we invented a machine that could hold any type of data, we wanted it to hold written data. It’s the spiritual but not practical successor to the typewriter. After all, the typewriter has no delete button. This modular element of word processing unlocked a whole new way of approaching words and thoughts:
"The beauty of word processing, God bless my word processor, is that it keeps the plotting very fluid. The prose becomes like a liquid that you can manipulate at will. In the old days, when I typed, every piece of typing paper was like cast in concrete" - Sue Grafton
"Editing is now the easiest thing on earth to do, and all the things that evolved out of word processing - 'Oh, let's put that sentence there, let's get rid of this' - have become commonplace in films and music too" - Brian Eno
From desktop to smartphones, we went from only doing word processing to jotting notes on the go. We went from elongated documents to snippets and half thoughts. Any moment is a moment to write. Any second is a chance to memorialize a thought fire off in your brain. This required another type of app.
The Dawn of Notes Apps
In the last 16 years since the introduction of the iPhone, we’ve seen a new wave of Writing apps, most typified by Evernote. A swiss army knife of notetaking tools that has changed the way we view notes and attach them to other components of our workflow or office work. Seth Godin, author and entrepreneur says “Evernote has been a game-changer for me. Its ability to capture notes, ideas, images across devices makes me far more productive than any tool I've used.” Douglas Engelbart, inventor and pioneer in interactive computing elevates Notes apps even further: “Robust note-taking apps built for the digital age give us external brains where nothing need ever be forgotten. They allow us to crystalize our best thoughts and see the connections between them.”
Today, people view Writing apps as productivity tools and “second brains” - but have they realized their potential?
Most people jot notes down and never look at them again, precipitating a whole category of productivity junkies who want to get the most out of their productivity tools and work process. They want to activate all those notes they write down and get the most out of the practice of writing. Instead of writing and forgetting.
But has this been realized? Current note taking apps aren’t “intelligent” but rather are projections of what human UX/UI product designers discover is what people need based on their work flows and productivity needs. Rather than adapt to the user, the users are forced to adapt to the product, using it in a way that makes the most sense for them. This is most evident with apps like Notion, Miro, Figma, and Google Docs suite, which provide templates for the user based on their familiarity with particular tools or workflows. This is particularly evident in team management tools like Jira, Asana, etc. which ask entire teams to learn a new process to be productive. The ramifications of adoption of these tools has allowed massive thousand plus teams to be created, maintained, and excel on a global scale. We don’t get multi-billion dollar companies without scalable productivity tools, after all.
At the same time, the toll the modern era has put on the human brain has been almost catastrophic. It's no wonder parents are restricting children from using smartphones and tablets for extended periods. They're cognizant of the impacts on dopamine and attention span.
"The age of Google heralds that human memory may no longer need to be as robust with the rise of the extended mind through technology. But we should remain alert to how outsourcing memory could diminish other mental faculties if exercised less." - Andy Clark, cognitive scientist, August 2009
“As smartphones have become ubiquitous, our cognitive load has increased exponentially, leading to more shallow information processing, which impairs encoding of memories.” - Dr. Glenn Fox, psychiatry professor at Harvard Medical School
We are forcing people to use tools that we think will make them more productive, based on industrial era ways of thinking about productivity, economics, and individual human brains, but are we building tools that fully understand their brain potential?
Within that context, even the aspirations or fears around writing and language tools, have they been fully realized? Have they hurt more than helped? And what’s next with AI on the horizon?
How AI is Rewriting the Craft of Writing
AI presents a potential paradigm shift in how we view everything.
Machine Learning, coined in 1959, and Deep Learning, which started in 1965 in earnest, have laid the foundation for where we are today. Steady progress continued in these fields until the Google paper “Attention is All You Need” published in 2017 which introduced the idea of Transformers, leading to today with OpenAI releasing and iterating on ChatGPT (GPT means Generative Pre-trained Transformers, a direct nod to Google’s breakthrough).
Behind these technologies is Neural Networks. There are plenty of guides to understand how this works, but for our purposes here, it’s worth noting that neural networks built on early understandings of how neurons work in the brain. AI finds its foundations in neuroscience and the brain.
Now, let’s imagine for a second that you fed an AI “brain” all of your memories, thoughts, work documents, and tasks. How does your approach to your work and your ideas change? Do you want to ask it questions? Or do you want it to think for you? What happens when you do the same thing with a human assistant? And how is it different from an assistant? Can your writing app become more powerful than a human assistant?
Let’s recap. Here’s a list of ways that people viewed knowledge management that we covered so far. Ancient and modern thoughts on memory and knowledge:
“produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it”
“Writing is the mother of eloquence and the father of artists”
“it created what in effect was a public”
“Typography tended to alter language…to a portable commodity”
“it keeps the plotting very fluid”
“makes me far more productive than any tool I've used”
“give us external brains where nothing need ever be forgotten”
In this context - what’s next? Does AI answer each of these?
Does the AI quiz us and remind us, improving our working memory?
Does AI unlock our creativity in whole new ways?
Does AI connect our ideas to larger groups of people, while making our ideas more palatable to larger audiences?
Does AI make language even more portable and remixable?
Does it make our ideas more fluid and connected to other ideas?
Does it redefine productivity or make you even more productive? Or does it blur the lines between personal and productivity?
Does it extend our brain power beyond our existing biological neurons?
The current field of AI Note taking apps
Fantastic Day has ruminated on where this all leads from our product lens. Note taking is one of the oldest technologies going all the way back to the invention of writing. It’s inextricably tied into civilization as we know it. It’s not restricted to tagging AI onto note taking and writing models, which carry their own baggage, and perspectives on knowledge, writing, memory, creativity, and the mind/brain.
The landscape of AI knowledge management apps below shows us what others are working on. They look at productivity and knowledge from existing views and others take a new approach based on the latest understandings of the brain.
Natural language generation - Services like Quillbot, WordTune, and Rewrite use NLP to rewrite, refine, expand, or shorten text while preserving meaning.
Creative writing aids - Tools like AI Writer, Sudowrite, and NovelAI seem focused on providing inspiration, ideas, and narrative frameworks to assist with fiction/non-fiction writing.
Summarization - Apps like Meeting Notes, Otter.ai, and Supernormal apply speech recognition and NLP to generate transcripts and summaries of spoken conversations.
Grammar/style correction - Services like ProWritingAid, Write Tone, and Grammarly analyze writing style and grammar to suggest improvements.
Thought organization - Tools like Roam Research, MyMind, and Raindrop specialize in personal knowledge management by capturing ideas and linking thoughts.
SEO optimization - WordLift, Katteb, and others help optimize writing for search engines using AI.
plagiarism checking - Copyleaks, Stealth GPT, and others aim to spot duplicate text
These companies show us the range of creativity and innovation applied to knowledge. With AI, it feels like anything is possible. But our sense is that we’ve still got a long way to go.
What does it mean to have another brain that works with you?
Let’s project further into an abstract future.
Today, we have a litany of knowledge management tools that build off of previous understanding of knowledge and writing. What if I actually had a second brain, a “living” and “breathing” semi-sentient entity that knows everything that I know, knows what I want, and even knows what I am capable of. This brain could help me realize who I am faster and better, finish sentences for me, and complete ideas for me. Not only would it help me be more productive, but it helps me to do exactly what I want to do most, it helps me to achieve my flow state, and maximizes my brain power. It’s no longer a note taking app, it’s a friend and mentor that keeps me motivated and accountable.
The thrilling part isn’t imagining what this means for me, but also imagining what this means for all of us. How would you approach my knowledge and ideas differently? And vice versa? How do we view the collective knowledge and ideas of a group, let alone a society? In record time, we might be living in a world where we double the amount of brains on earth. In that world, who’s taking Notes?