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

Or so it is claimed by most leaders of Internet companies. The belief in the efficacy and accuracy of collective wisdom is practically as central to the growth of today’s Internet companies as the belief in the efficiency of the market is to the New York Stock Exchange. In different forms it lies behind Google’s “PageRank” system for assessing Web sites, eBay’s measures of a merchant’s trustworthiness, Amazon’s book recommendations, and other hallmarks of the modern Internet industry. “A way to look at these social filtering systems is to think of them as generating millions of ‘most popular’ lists, and finding the most-popular items for people like you,” Greg Linden, who designed Amazon’s recommendations system, told me in an e-mail. “Normal best-seller lists are uninteresting to me because my tastes are not generic. But a best-selling list for people who buy some of the same books I do—that is likely to be interesting.”

Recently Jaron Lanier, an essayist on technology, launched a broadside against this faith and set off a major debate within the tech community. At the end of May the online publication Edge published Lanier’s essay “Digital Maoism,” which predicted that collective intelligence would have the same deadening and anticreative effect as political collectivism in general. The heart of this argument was that measures of mass popularity could be accurate in certain limited circumstances, but not in a large variety of others. Edge also published many rebuttals, and the debate goes on. The opposing camps and positions are amazingly similar to those in the endless economic debate between libertarian free-market absolutists, who think that any market outcome must be right, and those who say, “Yes, but …” and start listing cases of market failure.

My sympathies are with Lanier, but here is the intriguing part: even as we debate the limits on how much, and how many kinds of, intelligence human beings can ultimately build into their networks and machines, we have to recognize what computers can do already—and how that eventually may change us.

The most obvious and unquestionable achievement in Internet “intelligence” is the Jeopardy!-style retrieval of “spot knowledge.” If you want to know what other movies Vincent Schiavelli was in before and after Ghost, any search engine will point you to a list. As computing power becomes smaller, cheaper, and easier to embed in other products, nearly everything we use will eventually come with the ability to pull relevant data from search engines. The GPS receivers in cars that tell us about the restaurant or rest stop we’re passing are early indicators. Refrigerators will retrieve recipes for the ingredients inside; household appliances will download pages from repair manuals.

There is a second area in which Internet-borne knowledge is becoming steadily more impressive: categorization, or pattern recognition. In general, deciding how different things are similar, and similar things are different, is extremely difficult for computers. Any three-year-old can instantly tell a cow from a horse; few computers can. But related developments in several search engines have provided the beginnings of useful machine-created categorization.

A search engine called Clusty, founded by Carnegie Mellon computer scientists and based in Pittsburgh, returns its search results grouped by topic category. Type in “theory of evolution,” for instance, and it will tell you which sites discuss Charles Darwin, which cover modern developments in the theory, and which discuss its relationship with the Bible. An experimental search engine developed at the University of Maryland, at tinyurl.com/qkpht, also provides useful categorized results. Ask.com, formerly known as Ask Jeeves, has a very useful “Zoom” feature. Type in “theory of evolution” there, and it will suggest that you might want to narrow the search for information about the mechanics of natural selection, or broaden it to a general query about the beginnings of life. Cnet’s news site has a feature called “Big Picture.” After you enter a query, it produces a concept map showing the related topics to explore. Grokker was a pioneer in producing such concept maps, and remains a useful and reliably interesting way to display the overlaps and divergences among items discovered by a Web search. Raymond Kurzweil’s site employs an idea map of its own. When I’m doing a search to develop a theme and not to check spot knowledge, I have found that these categorizing sites—especially Ask.com—save me time in getting where I want to go.

If omnipresent retrieval of spot data means there’s less we have to remember, and if categorization systems do some of the first-stage thinking for us, what will happen to our brains? I’ve chosen to draw an optimistic conclusion, from the analogy of eyeglasses. Before corrective lenses were invented, some 700 years ago, bad eyesight was a profound handicap. In effect it meant being disconnected from the wider world, since it was hard to take in knowledge. With eyeglasses, this aspect of human fitness no longer mattered in most of what people did. More people could compete, contribute, and be fulfilled.

Something similar has been true with most mechanical inventions: sheer muscle power has mattered less, except for sex appeal, and people weak or strong have been able to live fuller lives.

It could be the same with these new computerized aids to cognition. I love winning when I play along with Jeopardy!, so of course I think that spot recall is a crucial part of human smartness. But I know that America’s university system has been the envy of the world in part because it relies so little on rote memorization. When my father was a practicing physician, I often heard him stress the value of clearing his mind of minutiae he could easily look up. Increasingly we all will be able to look up anything, at any time—and, with categorization, get a head start in thinking about connections.

I can think of one group of people for whom abundant, available facts could serve as eyeglasses: the vast majority of us who are destined to have a harder time remembering as the years go on. Imagine if every photograph came with a touch screen describing what it shows and when it was taken, or if reminders about appointments to keep, pills to take, and similar data could be so embedded in our lives that we wouldn’t have to worry about forgetting.

For those without such problems, these new tools could, while perhaps less immediately essential, yet become the modern-day equivalent of the steam engine or the plow—tools that free people from routine chores and give them more time to think, dream, and live. Each previous wave of invention has made humanity more intelligent overall. These may seem like fighting words, but consider: America may have fewer Jeffersons, Adamses, and Franklins now, but it does have many more people who are literate and can aspire to goals beyond mere survival. The next wave of tech innovation, if it is like all the previous ones, will again make us smarter. If we take advantage of its effects, it might even make us wiser, too.

James Fallows is a national correspondent at The Atlantic.
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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.

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