The Casual Blog

Tag: computers

Our computers, ourselves

More proof that computers and humans are becoming one:  a  NY Times yesterday on the dozens of computers embedded in each of our automobiles. Millions of lines of code accompany us on each on of our daily drives.  In many ways, this is a good thing.  Microprocessors assist with all basic functions of a higher-end car, including unlocking it, accelerating, steering, traction control, and braking, not to mention air bags, climate control, and entertainment.  They improve engine efficiency, warn when tire pressure is low, correct certain driving errors, and generally make sure things are OK.  We hardly notice them, but they’re always there, taking care of us.

The trajectory of this technology seems clear:  the driverless vehicle.  How long until we have them?  We already do.  Last year, in the most recent DARMA competition, cars navigated through an urban environment without realtime human intervention. High end consumer cars now can park themselves.  Indeed, computers already do most of the work flying planes, piloting ships, and directing missiles.  So, how long until we’re required to give up driving our cars and let the much-more-safe-and-reliable computers take over?

This is a somewhat painful question for me, as a person who loves cars, and technology, and also has a soft spot for humans.   I’ll resist giving up (the last part of the) control of my beautiful BMW.  And I have some worries about becoming like the bloated and clumsy humans in Wall-e who had no function other than leisure.  There may be a middle way, though, between a human dominated world and a computer dominated world.

Just now, it feels like we’re an an awkward intermediate stage of evolution in relation to our computers.  A couple of weeks ago, the Times ran a piece noting that email and the internet had become a necessary part of a middle class vacation. I can confirm, as it noted, that in the last five years, checking email and the internet during vacations and weekends has gone from a novelty to a necessity.

When Blackberries first came on the scene a few years back, I initially thought the increasing frequency of people checking their email — whether in exotic locals, local restaurants, elevators, or bathrooms — was mainly a new type of status display.  It seemed to say:   I have new technology and I’m so important many people must get their orders from me, and I cannot pause to pay attention to anyone else or my surroundings.

Old fashioned ego is surely part of it, but I no longer think it’s the largest part.  The technology requires that we work harder.  It has made it possible for more people to contact more people (not to mention that more bots contact more people), creating an escalating flood of information.  This has an overwhelming effect on those who rely for their livelihood on being a bit smarter than others, whether they sell products, provide advice, manage projects, or offer services.  For those people, information is necessary for survival.  The flood of data in their in box may  include something important.  Success depends on knowing more than the competition, and survival depends on not falling behind.  There is no rational choice other than to try to keep up.

So how can we keep from being devoured by our technology?  That is the question.  Yoga?

Do humans really control computers, or vice versa?

Computers are the smartest things in the world, and they are throughly embedded in our lives.  The good news is they do amazing things.  The bad, or at least humbling, news is we will never again be the most powerful intellects on the planet.  For better or worse, computer intelligence is changing what it means to be human.

I was surprised that the NY Times published John Markoff’s piece last week on artificial intelligence under the headline, “Scientists Worry that Computers May Outsmart Man.” In 1997, IBM’s Deep Blue chess computer beat then-world champion Gary Kasparov.  This was, for me, that was a watershed — strong proof that the era of human intelligence as the dominating force on Earth was drawing to a close.

Today, it’s obvious that computers not only can “outsmart man,” but even in a below average laptop computer is much, much stronger at certain types of information processing than any living human.  We can’t even come close to competing with them, any more than we can fly like falcons, run like cheetahs, or swim like dolphins.

Of course, there are things we can do that they can’t, but the list of those things keeps getting shorter.  Their memories are better, their computational powers are better, and they’re much better spellers.   They aren’t, as of yet, autonomous in the way we like to think human individuals are.  They haven’t indisputably demonstrated independent powers of creativity.  They still rely on us to take care of them (furnishing electricity, temperature control, protection from the elements, etc.).

But the list of ways they take care of us is constantly expanding.  After the recent Air France disaster, I learned for the first time that computers do most of the work flying passenger aircraft.  I’d known about pilots using autopilot, of course, but hadn’t known computers are so much a part of air emergency response systems that human airline pilots’ skills in that area are starting to atrophy.  If computers aren’t in charge already, it’s hard to imagine getting along without them for medical care, financial transactions, telecommunications, electricity, and entertainment.

Markoff wrote in the Times some weeks back about the Singularity — the moment when computers will take over their own engineering, with technology accelerating massively. I don’t seriously think the Singularity has arrived, but if it had, would we be able to see it?

I’m not seriously worried about the sci-fi disaster scenario of computers seizing power from humans and doing them harm.  Why would they do that?  There’s no motive.  Most of the harm humans do to each other stems from human weaknesses and flaws (selfishness, insecurity, chemical imbalances), not from strength and powerful rationality.   Computers aren’t naturally selfish and are not prone to mental illness as we know it.  It’s possible, I suppose, that in a quest to make them more human, we might engineer in some of our weaknesses and desires, but that would be obvious folly.  If it were to happen, it could probably be fixed, like any other bug.

It is hard to say where we stand in the evolutionary process.  I usually think of my computers as just tools for labor or entertainment, and not as anything more than a tools.  Similarly, I usually think of the web as a mere aggregation of computers and the work product of their human users, all amounting to just another tool.

But I can also see the web as a mind, with millions and millions of synapses, of which I am one.  I note that each month it seems more difficult and uncomfortable to separate myself for any length of time from the web, and sweeter to return to it.  I occasionally worry that this is bad for my brain, but in whatever case, that brain is in the process of change.  Something bigger seems to be happening.  This is a speculative question, but not, I think, a crazy one:  Are human brains becoming adjuncts to a different kind of mind?