The Best Intelligence Is Cyborg Intelligence

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The best services arise from the combination of machine and human intelligences.

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Alexis Madrigal


A quick pointer to today's A1 New York Times story on a phenomenon we've been following on this blog for the past year: as algorithmic entities explode across the web, humans remain central to their operation. Automation only goes so far and for all Watson's Jeopardy wins, there are still many, many tasks on which computers are terrible and humans are effortlessly amazing. Like understanding language, say, or knowing what's happening in a photograph. 


We noted this phenomenon in our work on Google Maps, which has a team of thousands of humans who handcorrect every single map. Here's the September story's key paragraphs:

There is an analogy to be made to one of Google's other impressive projects: Google Translate. What looks like machine intelligence is actually only a recombination of human intelligence. Translate relies on massive bodies of text that have been translated into different languages by humans; it then is able to extract words and phrases that match up. The algorithms are not actually that complex, but they work because of the massive amounts of data (i.e. human intelligence) that go into the task on the front end.

Google Maps has executed a similar operation. Humans are coding every bit of the logic of the road onto a representation of the world so that computers can simply duplicate (infinitely, instantly) the judgments that a person already made.

The Times story is well worth reading for its catalog of similar operations at other companies like Twitter, Apple, IBM, and some startups. The point is not that machines are not powerful or that humans are irreplaceable in some fixed sense. The point is that the best services are cyborg: they arise from the combination of machine and human intelligences.

As Manfred Clynes and Nathan Kline, the co-coiners of the term "cyborg," wrote in 1960, "The purpose of the Cyborg, as well as his own homeostatic systems, is to provide an organizational system in which such robot-like problems are taken care of automatically and unconsciously, leaving man free to explore, to create, to think, and to feel."

Fifty-three years later, I think the jury is still out on whether or not his initial hope was correct.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com, where he also oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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