Tuesday, February 03, 2004

So, maybe this is kind of silly, but I was thinking about Man-machine symbiosis and how some simple “thinking-like” tasks could be relegated to machines. Tasks like recognition, right? So read a riddle that I’ve read before and a little chime goes off in my cyber-implants asking me if I want the answer or I want to try to remember it “man”-ually. Is this good? And what would we give all the students who would have previously won spelling bees? And what if I read the encyclopedia? I'd win every Trivial Pursuit game ever.

So, if you thought the last question was pedestrian, this one is even less scholarly, but it bugs me a little more. What about sports? Think of a quarterback in the NFL. One of his greatest assets is the ability to recognize a blitz, especially the hidden or delayed ones, and know what to do with the ball. Well, what happens when that task is relegated to a machine? Tom Brady’s great-great-great grandchild, Brady12, could step back, have his implants check out the formation, chose the appropriate play, transmit the call via 802.11b to all the players and Presto! Touchdown. That doesn’t sound like fun to me. So, I guess the “academic” question here is, what sorts of consequences are we blinding ourselves to in our memex-like enthusiasm?

One quote that I thought was intersting from the Licklider paper was this: “The sum of the probabilities of very-low-probability alternatives is often much too large to neglect.” Which got me thinking about Wiener, who asks rhetorically: “Is man likely to use better judgement in emergencies than a machine? The answer is no.” Aren’t these two a bit contradictory? Indeed, one seems to indicate that humans are better at figuring out what to do in an unpredicted situation. Wiener claims that in an unpredicted situation, humans are likely to screw up. Personally, I disagree, but the question seems to be this: What exactly is it that makes humans useful in difficult-to-predict situations? A more interesting question, is, in a future era, when (if) machines develop to a point where they are nearly, if not completely, more competent than man in virtually every arena, what will humans be useful for?

Paul Medenwaldt


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