Don't Hail Our Computer Overlords Just Yet

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by Mark Bernstein

Unnerved by an IBM publicity stunt pitting a computer program against a human "champion" in a television game show, the New York Times ran John Markoff's coverage of the contest beneath the headline, "A Fight to Win the Future: Computers vs. Humans." Markoff is worried that natural language understanding will throw legions of workers out of work. Agricultural and industrial automation were one thing, but won't this new technology be the last straw?

RomanStreet.jpgOf course it won't. We've experienced this anxiety before -- not just in the industrial revolution, but when we invented books and signage. We could employ people to stand on street corners and help people find their Aunt Martha's house. We don't do that anymore; we put up signs and we teach everyone to read them. The Romans did this too, though sometimes they made things tricky for outsiders who would need to identify themselves and get help. Today, we have street names and systematic addresses and postal districts and zip codes -- Anthony Trollope did a lot of the original work for this -- so now you can find Aunt Martha yourself, and so can her letter carrier.

When books were invented, people worried a lot about the philosophers and tutors who would be out of work. Who needs a teacher when you can run down to the library and look things up in Old Pliny? Medieval scholars worried that, if students were permitted to use books, they would confuse themselves and their classmates. They did; progress has its costs.

Today, much thinking about thinking machines is muddied. We're accustomed to assume that anything that talks back to us is partly human. If a program asks its users whether it has done a good job, even computer scientists tend to give it higher scores than they report if someone else asks; we know the computer has no feelings to be hurt, but everyone wants to be polite. Chemists once thought there were two entirely different kinds of matter -- stuff from living things, which was "organic," and everything else, which was "inorganic." This idea was called vitalism and nobody believes it anymore -- except when it comes to machine thinking.

Markoff does make a nice point about two strands of computer research: artificial intelligence, epitomized by John McCarthy, and tool-making, epitomized by Doug Engelbart. But Engelbart's goal of "designing a computing system that would instead 'bootstrap' the human intelligence of small groups of scientists and engineers" was always a personal vision, and I think most of Engelbart's followers and supporters have always edited out that embarrassing word "small." Why not help everyone?

We've made machines that answer questions for a very long time. We need better ways to get answers and better answers. When we decided that it was self-evident that all men are created equal, lots of people were worried: Won't this be the end of civilized life? Who will make dinner and clean up the mess?

I think we can manage.

Mark Bernstein is chief scientist at Eastgate Systems, where he crafts software for new ways of reading and writing.

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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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