Technology October 2006

Artificial Intelligentsia

How the Internet is fitting its users with mental eyeglasses— and letting them see new vistas of knowledge in the process
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In one way I know of, the Internet has improved my personality. In the olden days, I would get annoyed (and show it) when I heard a song I knew but couldn’t remember who was singing, or when I channel surfed across an old movie and wondered who a familiar-looking character actor was (who is the creepy guy who tussles with Patrick Swayze on the subway in Ghost?). The question would lodge in my brain and make me cranky until the answer popped up hours or days later, or until I forgot about it. Now, if I’m at a computer, I can scratch the mental itch in seconds (answer: the late Vincent Schiavelli), and even while walking around I can query a search engine from my PDA.

Also see:

"From the Tech Toolbox" (January/February 2005)
The new Ask.com deserves a look. By James Fallows

In another way I’m all too aware of, the Internet has worsened my disposition, or at least my ability to behave like a grown-up. In principle, time away from a broadband connection should be precious time, because there are fewer distractions. In reality, it makes me nervous, because there’s not a new link to click on or a blog update to check (for other people, being out of e-mail range for even a minute is anxiety provoking). Nearly ten years ago, Linda Stone, then an executive with Microsoft, introduced the term continuous partial attention to describe this modern predicament—and that was before BlackBerries and WiFi. Now, the sign of a serious meeting is whether participants are forced to turn off their PDAs and laptop WiFi receivers.

No doubt technology is also changing our behavior in ways we ourselves may not be aware of but that are obvious to outsiders. For instance, I can guess from two blocks away that a driver is talking on a cell phone, and I’m rarely wrong. And everyone who checks e-mail on a handheld device thinks it can be done discreetly, but no one who is present when this happens is fooled. Certainly not my wife, who will scream the next time I glance at my BlackBerry while “listening” to her.

What I’m leading up to is a consideration less of these immediate personality changes than of the long-term interaction between human and machine intelligence—from the side of the equation that usually gets less attention. Since the first mammoth devices were assembled, during World War II, people have struggled to make computers “smarter,” and have speculated about how smart they might ultimately become. Fifty years ago, the British mathematician Alan Turing said that computers would be considered fully intelligent when they met this test: a person would submit statements in natural language—“Who’s going to win the next election?” “My husband seems distant these days—and wouldn’t be able to tell whether the responses came from another person or a machine. No computer has ever come close to passing this test. Recently, though, the inventor Raymond Kurzweil made a public bet with Mitchell Kapor, the founder of Lotus, that a computer would pass the Turing test by 2029. Kurzweil’s essential argument (derived from his book The Singularity Is Near) was that as computers kept doubling in speed and power, and as programmers continually narrowed the gap between machine “intelligence” and human thought, soon almost anything would be possible. Kapor’s reply was that human beings differed so totally from machines—they were housed in bodies that felt pleasure and pain, they accumulated experience, they felt emotion, much of their knowledge was tacit rather than expressed—that computers would not pass the Turing test by 2029, if ever. (Their back-and-forth exchanges, with views from others, are available at www.kurzweilai.net.)

A recent variant of this argument concerns whether the Internet is already fostering an unanticipated and important form of artificial intelligence. The 2004 book The Wisdom of Crowds, by James Surowiecki of The New Yorker, is the clearest explanation of this development, variously known as “collective intelligence” or “the hive mind.” The logic here is almost identical to that of Adam Smith–style capitalism. Smith argued that millions of buyers and sellers, each pursuing his own interest, would together produce more goods, more efficiently, than any other arrangement could. The Internet has made possible a similar efficient marketplace for ideas, reputations, and information online. Millions of bloggers create links to other sites and thereby cast marketplace votes for the relevance and plausibility of those sites. Thousands of editors refine each other’s entries in Wikipedia (as described last month in these pages by Marshall Poe). Together, these and other suppliers of collective intelligence can create more knowledge, with less bias and over a wider span of disciplines, than any group of experts could.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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