Embracing the Petabyte Age, Part III: The Mechanization of Man
Don’t forget about us.
A core component in the Singularity-conversation is the topic of the evolving humanization of computers. But how come we don’t speak much of the reciprocal mechanization of man? It’s a two-way street, but most of us don’t consider this in the big picture. Our natural processes are constantly influenced (for better and worse) by the machines in our lives.
I suppose we’re victims of our own subjectivity and don’t quite consider it, or maybe we’re in a collective subconscious state of denial. Whatever the reason, it’s happening, and we ought to start paying more attention because we just might lost the very thing that makes us human, the je ne sais quoi that computers don’t have but we’re trying to provide them with.
They learn from us.
In his book The Age of Spiritual Machines, Ray Kurzweil discusses the future course of humanity, particularly relating to the development of artificial intelligence and its impact on human consciousness. The book predicts that machines with human-like intelligence will surface and be readily available, revolutionizing most aspects of life, and that eventually humanity and its machinery will become one and the same.
As we journey toward the realization of his prophesy (*crosses fingers*), we will continue to encounter the progressive humanization of technology all around us. Today, this idea is fairly well known due to the exponential progress rippling through our world. More and more, we are redesigning our technology to merge into our lives as opposed to the inferior method of attaching to our lives. The merge-factor provides a more physical (sometime human-like) vibe.
Example: Instead of scanning headlines from site to site while scrolling your mousewheel (think: attached), throw them away along with your newspaper and pick up an iPad and flip away with the more natural behavior (think: merged). This is pseudo-empathetic technology that feels more like Mom than it does Microsoft. The iPad promises a more physically intuitive interface that sympathizes with our workflows and playflows.
And the idea of intuition is key, as it’s a core differentiated human capability. Consider that your word processor has never corrected you by articulating “ummmm… I think you really meant to say it this way.” Aside from spelling and grammar correction, MS Word can’t do that (yet), because it’s stuck with the intuitive abilities of a plastic bag. However, progress is indeed happening.
Example: New, intuitive features in Gmail Labs. Google presents us with some cool tricks, such as the “forgotten attachment reminder” that knows if you meant to include a file with your message. Also, there’s the clever “do you also want to send this to these people”, the feature that learns your patterns of group addressing so no body gets left out. Wonderful examples of progress in this space surface all the time, you just need to learn how to recognize them. Keep watch.
We learn from them. (Sometimes not in a positive way.)
So the code is getting smarter, more human-like, more intuitive. Intuition and intelligent choice-making are key elements of humanized computers. Intuition is understanding intention, and that’s something people do very well compared to machines today. Intention is often removed from our overt behavior, and is something interpretive, fueled by creativity, pattern recognition and emotion. Computers can’t really see something if it’s not in front of them, if it’s not overt or somehow defined. To date, most technological intuition is merely faked. It’s nothing but a sham, incapable of trusting it’s gut and relying on immense computation procedures (think of Chess applications that use brute force calculation instead of creative approaches).
But here’s the thing. As machines learn from us, we learn from them. The relationship is remarkable, and we best not lose the plot, because we’ll need the things that differentiate us as humans to get to the Singularity. We must not lose ourselves to the seduction of passive, predictable calculating behaviors of Turing machines.
Are our intuitive abilities degrading with each Google search? Are we sacrificing the capabilities of deductive logic reasoning with each query or Excel calculation? I think we are, to a certain extent (although not quite with the drama of recent headlines: “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”).
What about the sense of exploration? The hunger to discover wanes in some way with every “recommended” book, song or blog post. Sure, we’re still discovering, but we’re not being psychologically gratified the way we used to be when we figuratively hunted for our dinner. This must have an effect on the thread or our psychological evolution. For example, I used to enjoy the magic of discovering a new album. It was like winning the lottery. Today, Pandora, Last FM and the like have contributed to the demise of such experiences. Instead of feeling the awesome sensation linked to the victorious discovery of something great, I find myself more often disappointed with the less-than-accurate suggestions of the recommendation engines of the web.
The fundamental approach that we take to problem solving today must be taking it’s toll on our thinking patterns as well. We used to think differently. Maybe not more (we’ve never enjoyed more access to more information), but definitely differently. We are being rewired to operate in ways that are aligned to the mechanical behaviors that we increasingly depend on to get us through the day.
What have we become?
Why develop a sense of direction when your car’s GPS system can lead the way? Why hone mathematical estimation skills when your spreadsheet’s got them covered? Is the art of creative writing hindered by the guidance of Microsoft language tools? Vonnegut’s texts would undoubtedly be underlined green throughout. With Guitar Hero at their fingertips, will the musically-inclined youth realize potential skills and contribute to the creative catalogue, or will they be satisfied with the gratification of 87,000 points and an unlocked song?
The use of computers has clearly altered the human way. And maybe that’s okay. But at what cost?
My favorite example is Chess. In his excellent review of the book “The Chess Master and the Computer”, god-like Garry Kasparov explains:
The heavy use of computer analysis [by professional chess players] has pushed the game itself in new directions. The machine doesn’t care about style or patterns or hundreds of years of established theory. It counts up the values of the chess pieces, analyzes a few billion moves, and counts them up again. (A computer translates each piece and each positional factor into a value in order to reduce the game to numbers it can crunch.) It is entirely free of prejudice and doctrine and this has contributed to the development of players who are almost as free of dogma as the machines with which they train. Increasingly, a move isn’t good or bad because it looks that way or because it hasn’t been done that way before. It’s simply good if it works and bad if it doesn’t. Although we still require a strong measure of intuition and logic to play well, humans today are starting to play more like computers.
Will innovative chess die with the dependency on computer analysis and training? Perhaps.
The message that I want to leave you with is this: don’t enslave yourself completely to whatever digital tools you’ve got in your life. Keep an eye out for areas/skills in which you particularly rely on technological support. In a simple application of this, don’t be afraid to rely on your own brain to remember a phone number or address, and don’t shy away from performing calculations in your head when performing quick estimations.
Use it, or lose it.