Just finished Clive Thompson's Smarter Than You Think.
Excellent, important book. (Here's the last excerpt I posted: https://plus.google.com/+JamesHarrisDesign/posts/X9K97cUvxuT
) After describing how the Watson supercomputer systematically destroyed its competitors on Jeopardy!, even at tasks requiring great breadth of insight and mastery of the English language, he writes:
I'll admit it: Watson scared the living heck out of me.
As I watched it deftly intuit puns, juggle millenia's worth of information, and tear through human opponents like some sort of bionic brain-shark, a technological dystopia unfolded in my grim imagination. This is it! We're finally doomed. I could imagine Watson-like AI slowly colonizing our world. Knowledge workers would be tossed out of their jobs. Shows like Jeopardy!--indeed, all feats of human intellectual legerdemain--would become irrelevant. And as we all started walking around with copies of Watson in our wearable computers, we'd get mentally lazier, relying on it to transactively retrieve every piece of knowledge, internalizing nothing, our minds echoing like empty hallways. Deep conversation would grind to a halt as we became ever more entranced with pulling celebrity trivia out of Watson, and eventually humans would devolve into a sort of meatspace buffer through which instances of Watson would basically just talk to each other
. Doomed, I tell you.
Obviously, I don't really believe this dire scenario. But even for me, such dystopian predictions are easy to generate. Why is that? Among other things, doomsaying is emotionally self-protective: If you complain that today's technology is wrecking the culture, you can tell yourself you're a gimlet-eyed critic who isn't hoodwinked by high-tech trends and silly popular activities like social networking. You seem like someone who has a richer, deeper appreciation for the past and who stands above the triviality of today's life. Indeed, some clever experiments by Harvard's Teresa Amabile and others have found that when people hear negative, critical views, they regard them as inherently more intelligent than optimistic ones; when we're trying to seem smart to others, we tend to say critical, negative things. I suspect this is partly why so much high-brow tech punditry proceeds instinctively from the pessimistic view, and why we're told so often and so vehemently that today's thinking tools make us only shallow and narcissistic, that we ought to be ashamed for using them.
But as I've argued, this reflexively dystopian view is just as misleading as the giddy boosterism of Silicon Valley. Its nostalgia is false; it pretends these cultural prophecies of doom are somehow new and haven't occurred with metronomic regularity, and in nearly identical form, for centuries. And it ignores the many brilliant new ways we've harnessed new technologies, from the delightful and everyday (using funny hashtags to joke around with like-minded strangers worldwide) to the rare and august (collaborating on Fold.it to solve medical problems).
Understanding how to use new tools for thought requires not just a critical eye, but curiosity and experimentation. ... We'll truly figure out what Watson is for only when people begin using the software to make jokes, to play games, to hassle each other. ...
How should you respond when you get powerful new tools for finding answers?
Think of harder questions.