Cognitive proximity

Cognitive proximity facilitates smooth interplay between human and artificial intelligence. It addresses the growing demand to integrate AI in practical and balanced ways into the functioning of organisations and businesses. It enhances the utility of AI while maintaining the critical and creative role of humans on three levels of cognition and communication: rationality (logos), values (ethos), and emotions (pathos).

In practice, cognitive proximity is about having ‘good chemistry’ with colleagues while using AI effectively for research, teaching, analysis, forecasting, and other activities. In this text, you can find concrete examples of how cognitive proximity is used in Diplo.

Analogous to cognitive proximity, Gary Kasparov explains why successful tech-human interplay is essential in order to win a “freestyle chess” game in which players are permitted to use computers:

The winner was revealed to be not a grandmaster with a state-of-the-art PC but a pair of amateur American chess players using three computers at the same time. Their skill at manipulating and “coaching” their computers to look very deeply into positions effectively counteracted the superior chess understanding of their grandmaster opponents and the greater computational power of other participants.

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Freestyle chess game – animation by DALL-E
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Freestyle chess tournament

Kasparov provides a formula for tech-human interplay that relates well to the cognitive proximity approach:

Weak human + machine + better process was superior to a strong computer alone and, more remarkably, superior to a strong human + machine + inferior process.

Gary Kasparov, ‘The Chess Master and the Computer’, New York Book Review, 11 February 2020

Cognitive Proximity at Diplo

Diplo’s cognitive proximity illustrates Kasparov’s formula. Diplo does not have ‘grandmasters’ or, in our work, renewed names in international relations, AI, or other fields of Diplo’s work. Diplo does not have powerful computers either. But it has advanced in ways and means of putting together human and machine strengths through cognitive proximity on three layers:

  • logic: understanding of each other’s research and analysis,
  • values: respecting human dignity via appreciation of each other’s time, initiatives and ideas regardless of individual position in Diplo’s structure and hierarchy;
  • emotions: moving beyond formal organisational procedures towards understanding and respecting deeper motivational layers from cultural context to personal differences.

In the table below, cognitive proximity visualisation starts with ‘Robinson Corner’ (top-left corner), where the individual is alone, like Robinson Crusoe, on an isolated island. Robinson had complete agency and free will in dealing with his natural surroundings.

Diagonally in the opposite corner (bottom-right) is the ‘Orwell Corner’ of dystopian space, where humans have lost free will and creative agency due to the misuse of AI, dysfunctional institutions, and disintegrated society.

In the cognitive proximity table at the X-axis (horizontal), our engagement starts with (1) the closest emotional, spiritual and intellectual engagement. It goes further to dysfunctional hierarchical organisations’ highest cognitive distance (10).

On the Y-axis (vertical) is the proximity between humans and technologies. Our proximity to external tools decreases with every new information and communication technology. We start with simple writing, a physical (holding a pen) technology, and cognitively close to us. Every new technology is further apart from us reaching point 10 when our free will and agency are lost in a transhumanistic environment.

cognitive proximity table 2

Making choices and cognitive proximity

AI is changing how we make choices, from personal to political and economic ones. Cognitive proximity in making decisions is especially important for the future use of AI and for protecting a world centred on people. The next picture shows how choices made by people and machines affect each other.

Image of choices made by people and machines.

Tacit knowledge and cognitive proximity

Cognitive proximity can help organisations to exchange and preserve tacit knowledge. The closer humans are to each other logically and emotionally, the smoother the flow of tacit knowledge is. This flow happens in informal ways through lunch chats and storytelling. AI can also help capture tacit knowledge, especially when saved in text format.

Conceptual origins of cognitive proximity

Reflections on how we use technology is as old as humanity. The interaction between technology and humans was particularly interesting for philosophers from Ancient Greece. For instance, Plate, in dialogue Phaedrus, warned that writing, the ‘high-tech’ of antiquity, could diminish human memory and, ultimately, affect our wisdom.

In the meantime, writing has become such an integral part of our lives that it is no longer regarded as ‘technology’. Will AI also become just another technology, as has happened with writing? Not necessarily! AI could trigger a qualitative shift in the evolution of civilisation by minimising human free will and overall agency. It can make us cognitively distant from each other and ourselves individually. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

In the light of a wider historical and philosophical context, we – at Diplo – are examining fundamental philosophical inquiries of our time by employing AI as a tool in Diplo’s research, teaching, and management. In the end, our goal is to respond to the question:

Does technological progress make us closer or farther apart logically, ethically, and emotionally?