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The critical importance of being lazy

The critical importance 
of being lazy 

Thomas Hoberg

Technical Director Worldline Labs

Nothing prepares you better for a successful relationship than being a parent. Too bad it’s only after you’ve raised kids from both sexes, that you are half-way qualified to start one. Even during the fog of the initial post-partum recovery, breast feeding, running-a-complete-household-and-life exhaustion, parents may marvel just how tired their kids are, too: Babies sleep an extraordinary amount of time, just too bad, it so often is when you can’t.

An unexpected side benefit of the current hype around machine learning and artificial intelligence is that in trying to emulate intelligence we learn more about ourselves. And there one of the most critical aspects is the vast gap between the cost of training and the effort of using our mind. When we start out, we can’t even make sense of our senses: seeing, hearing, even touch and taste as such first need to be dialled up and calibrated in, before we then venture out into the world and learn to smile at a particularly comforting apparition. Just how enormous the task and consequently the fatigue is we can observe in our infants but also in victims of strokes or mutilation who relearn and rewire their brains to regain control over limbs where the back-end they trained as babies has succumbed.

Somewhat later we can observe to just what extend teens will employ their wildest creativity, imagination and argumentative power to have us see things their way while we try to make them do things we want, usually basic tidying and chores. It’s a mental battle of will and intellect that under careful nurture could turn them into brilliant scientists or trial lawyers, if only we manage to play along and keep life’s challenges, spouses, siblings, in-laws and line managers parried.

It requires the ability to go from cognition, via self-awareness to the ability to project another’s mental image and intent of one-self or a third party and then perhaps through another three or four points of mental inflection, intent modelling or abstraction that not even all adults are capable to attain.

The costs of these mental super powers are enormous: The human brain not only consumes more than 20% of our energy intake, its giant size requires an extraordinary long time to grow in our mother’s womb and to train after a birth that can only be judged premature compared to other species. Even if neuron density and true 3D scaling are hard to beat, unlike 2D silicon chips brains can’t just clock faster or stop to idle: the brain’s power envelope is narrowly perched on a sugary metabolism that needs constant sustenance.

Our primate ancestors were set on this mental expansion path by a climate change that forced them off trees in a dying jungle into a savannah full of predators, where the individual’s survival depended on its ability to constantly keep a loyal clique of intimate friends to guard, fight and help each other, because evolutions was too slow to grow them teeth big enough to scare a leopard or limbs long enough to outrun a lion. Walking upright through the long grass and paying close attention to each other got them through the dry spell and into all continents eventually.

Communal laughter and gossip evolved into intellect and science, the ability to look into each other’s mind offered our best insight into the limits of the cosmos and time itself, but only after years or even decades of extensive and sometimes exhausting training have reduced the hard to measure mental effort to the equivalent of five very intimate individual friends and a detailed mentalized model of how they stand relative to each other: it is quite simply the limit of what our brains can manage, according to Robin Dunbar.

From personal observation I believe similar limits apply to the languages you speak, weapons, tools or instruments you can wield or play. Poets, musicians, artisans or warriors can develop an almost symbiotic relationship with an instrument at a very high cost of training. Some even manage another two or three at a level that is as impressive as the lopsided deficits that effort seems to etch into their relationships and souls. But even the most astounding multi-lingual, multi-instrument or multi-weapon virtuosi cease to operate at innate symbiotic fluidity before they run out of fingers on one hand and become as wooden with the extras as they are with the acquaintances that leaves them with. You can move on, make some new intimate friends, become a master at a new skill or craft, transition into a new domain of expertise, but you will have to give someone or something just as significant up as the new depth you want to attain, because your brain imposes a hard upper limit.

For relationships Dunbar observes other numbers and inclusive multiples, puts the number of best friends (of which the intimates are a part) at 15, good friends at 50, and the very critical number of people with whom you can maintain reciprocal communities at 150. You may be able to put a name or a connection to 500, beyond 1500 individuals we no longer even recognize a face.


Every living thing starts as potential prey, even the biggest and most ferocious predators. Naturally we all end as prey, too, while life is mostly about finishing the reproductive cycle in the mean-time. Our sensitivity to movement and the ability to quickly distinguish between an object just pushed by the wind like rustling leaves or a predator preparing for attack is so critical, it’s one of the first things everyone needs to learn, both to escape danger and to shut down the fire alarm and relax those muscles, because a constant state of anxiety and agitation would kill us, too. While a brain cannot really go into idle, it critically requires constant housekeeping, again an activity that forces babies to stay unconscious while learning to do it unconsciously, without “mental effort” or apparent laziness, because otherwise both conscious ability and less conscious background activities suffer and eventually break down.

Many of us have laughed ourselves silly watching kitten in videos jumping out of their skins, because that mean cameraman, or his accomplice managed to make an object in its vicinity suddenly move via a string attached. We feel the shock of the poor cat and we emphasize when an object suddenly violates its holy contract of innate “objectivity” and turns into a potentially harmful subject showing action. And with that we do two things cats and most other animal can’t ever do: We mentalize its state, put ourselves into its position and project our own reaction, all of which costs an extraordinary amount of brain power.

And the laughter points to the fact that as humans we share the scare, because our legs were too short, our claws and teeth less impressive when we stood individually against the predator. We rely on our most intimate friends and family to coordinate our defense and act as a team mentalizing minds and activities of each member, an effort we’d label super human, even if it’s clearly human, mostly because we can only sustain it for very short times and only after spending a lot of brain intensive time with the few whose mind we thus train to read as if it were our own.

Things that act, be they machines or smart IoT devices become expensively individual. They require our brains to mentalize them, to model their intentionality, project their responses to our behavior. That costs us at minimum one of the 150 slots of brainpower we can give to members of our community. Our personal computers, the very personal ones we carry on our bodies or the other type we stare at professionally all day may cost as a friend, even a close or intimate one, if we need to constantly struggle to keep our mental model and their actual behavior in sync.

We willingly pay that price for the intimate friends who keep us hale and safe or the community members that repay our attention in value. The hurt and pain if they violate our trust or their rejection if they simply do not reciprocate is rooted very deeply and extremely difficult to repair or fix when broken.

Making things smart and connected to IT services is a matter of pennies, making dozens or hundreds of smart things appealing value or even attractive as a long-time partner intelligence requires understanding ourselves first and the critical importance of making it all extremely easy to our mind, both by matching our expectations and by merging them into as few mental individuals as possible.


For far more details on the technical and political challenges around that I recommend you dive into HiPEACs Vision 2020, which you can find here:


Robin Dunbar’s books and lectures on human evolution and friends give a wonderfully supporting voice to the notion that our limitations to inter-human relationships also extend to things turning into individuals.