What's the use of memorizing data, or even acquiring knowledge, if all information is accessible online? The simple answer is context.

The well-known American painter Kenneth Noland once said during a speech at the University of Hartford, "For me, context is the key — from that comes the understanding of everything."

The idea that context is important to understanding anything more than just superficially has been around for as long as humans have been trying (and failing) to make ourselves understood. Noland was talking about it in reference to art, but the idea that "context is key" is repeated in the worlds of business, politics, science, education and, well, pretty much everywhere.

It's that uniquely human ability to contextualize that's missing from how machines understand the world. And that's the primary reason why as convenient as it is to Google something, a search engine is no substitute for the human brain.

There's no competition

Artificial intelligence The uniquely human ability to contextualize is missing from how machines understand the world. And that's why as convenient as Google is, a search engine is no substitute for the brain. (Photo: Jirsak/Shutterstock)

The reason that using Google to find a piece of information is so useful comes down to how it works with the human mind, not as a competition with it. For example, if you need a piece of information from Google, anyone who researches as part of their job knows that how you ask the question matters. I often try several phases or word combinations to find a piece of data I'm seeking. My brain is doing the work of figuring out what Google needs to find it; I'm thinking of all the contexts that piece of information might be part of. Then, when the results pop up, I do more context-related work — looking at where information is coming from, how old it is and what it's in reference to — in order to decide if it's the correct answer.

Context isn't just interacting with machines that contain data we need to sort though; it's also about the connections between related — and unrelated — topics that help us fully contextualize, and therefore understand, anything. That could be as simple as the definition of a word.

As Daniel Willingham writes in the New York Times, "Every teacher knows that a sixth-grader, armed with a thesaurus, will often submit a paper studded with words used in not-quite-correct ways, like the student who looked up 'meticulous,' saw it meant 'very careful,' and wrote 'I was meticulous when I fell off the cliff.'" Technically, according to the definition of the word, it's not incorrect, and indeed, if a computer were writing this sentence, it would make the same mistake. This example proves how important context and the nuances of communication and language really are — and how they're not replaceable by a machine.

As Willingham writes, "...that’s why vocabulary instruction seldom consists of simple memorization of definitions — students are asked to use the words in a variety of sentences." In this way, kids learn what "meticulous" really means, and this helps us understand why when we give instructions to computers, they so often get it wrong, and misunderstand our query or need.

We may be able to train computers to think more like we do as technology improves, but for now, the human brain — slower in many cases than a computer, and certainly unable to hold the sheer volume of information that a hard drive can — is still a better machine. Acquiring information still matters, regardless of your age, in part because of the connections that can be made between the new information and the things you already know.

Right now, machines can't construct more than the most basic sentences. Until computer engineers figure out how to program the elements of contextual understanding, our brains — which are primed to do this from the time we are born — have the advantage. So let's all celebrate the wonderful advantages of using Google as a source of information — but it's no substitute for your noggin.

For understanding, invention, creation and problem-solving, the brain's power is, so far, unmatched.

Starre Vartan ( @ecochickie ) covers conscious consumption, health and science as she travels the world exploring new cultures and ideas.

Google will never be a substitute for your brain
Context is key, and it's something computers and search engines like Google just don't have yet.