Sunday, October 27, 2013

A Memorable Fancy

Content analyzers, the statistical computer programs the NSA and Amazon use to identify terrorists and customers, can’t actually read, which is why bemused dentists from Cleveland wind up on the no-fly list and I get peppered with ads for books on Biblical exegesis. The ways that such substitutes for human intelligence fall short shouldn’t keep us from recognizing the ways in which they also exceed human intelligence. Insight is more glamorous than method; but where being right is more important than being clever, in medical diagnosis, for example, it’s often second best. There’s an irony in the triumph of big data over consciousness because it echoes an earlier episode in which consciousness first demonstrated its advantages over instinct. Just as understanding things wins many battles against mindless number crunching, hunches and feel often outperformed and continue to outperform reasoning, at least in the moment. Still, John Henry and Kasparov eventually lose. I actually had a dream about all this last night, but in the dream there was one further wrinkle. I conjured a cognitive power that emerged on the far side of brute AI and exceeded its reach as far as it will eventually exceed ours. Of course such a thing would be perfectly incomprehensible to us—you might as well hope that an especially intelligent bowling ball would get a joke—but it was somehow consoling to imagine we’ll have a better successor than Watson or Sky Net. Maybe it’s like Westerns. There’s always a faster gunslinger out there.

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