Monday, November 4, 2013

‘Smarter Than You Think,’ by Clive Thompson

When the world chess champion Garry Kasparov was beaten in 1997 by Deep Blue, an I.B.M. supercomputer, it was considered to be a major milestone in the march toward artificial intelligence. It probably shouldn’t have been. As complex as chess is, it’s easy to see that its rules can be translated into algorithms so that computers, when they eventually got enough processing power, could crunch through billions of possible moves and past games. Deep Blue’s calculations were a fundamentally different process, most people would say, from the “real” thinking and intuition a human player would use.

Clive Thompson, a Brooklyn-based technology journalist, uses this tale to open “Smarter Than You Think,” his judicious and insightful book on human and machine intelligence. But he takes it to a more interesting level. The year after his defeat by Deep Blue, Kasparov set out to see what would happen if he paired a machine and a human chess player in a collaboration. Like a centaur, the hybrid would have the strength of each of its components: the processing power of a large logic circuit and the intuition of a human brain’s wetware. The result: human-machine teams, even when they didn’t include the best grandmasters or most powerful computers, consistently beat teams composed solely of human grandmasters or superfast machines.

Thompson’s point is that “artificial intelligence” — defined as machines that can think on their own just like or better than humans — is not yet (and may never be) as powerful as “intelligence amplification,” the symbiotic smarts that occur when human cognition is augmented by a close interaction with computers. When he played in collaboration with a computer, Kasparov said, it freed him to focus on the “creative texture” of the game. In the future, Thompson writes, we should not fear being beaten in chess by Deep Blue or in “Jeopardy!” by Watson. Instead, humans will find themselves working in partnership with the progeny of these supercomputers to diagnose diseases, solve crimes, write poetry and become (as the clever double meaning of the book’s title puts it) smarter than we think.

This is not a new idea. It is based on the vision expounded by Vannevar Bush in his 1945 essay “As We May Think,” which conjured up a “memex” machine that would remember and connect information for us mere mortals. The concept was refined in the early 1960s by the Internet pioneer J. C. R. Licklider, who wrote a paper titled “Man-Computer Symbiosis,” and the computer designer Douglas Engelbart, who wrote “Augmenting Human Intellect.” They often found themselves in opposition to their colleagues, like Marvin Minsky and John McCarthy, who stressed the goal of pursuing artificial intelligence machines that left humans out of the loop.

Thompson doesn’t delve into this rich technological and intellectual history. What he provides instead are some interesting current examples of how human-­computer symbiosis is enlarging our intellect. The use of digital devices and social networks, he shows, helps to facilitate collaborative creativity and an ambient awareness of what’s happening in the world, while reducing the need to perform simple memory tasks.

Thompson avoids both the hype and the hand-wringing so common among digital age pontificators by sidestepping most of the topics that agitate the geekosphere, like whether Google is rewiring the neurons in our brains or Twitter is making the world safe for democracy. He comes across as a sensible utopian, tending toward the belief that our digital devices and social networks are, on balance, enhancing our lives and improving the world in the same mixed-blessing sort of way that writing, paper, the printing press and the telephone did.

In debunking the doomsayers, Thompson has pleasant sport poking fun at history’s procession of pessimists, starting with Socrates and his prediction that writing would destroy the Greek tradition of dialectic. Socrates’ primary concern was that people would write things down instead of remembering them. “This discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories,” Plato quotes him as saying. “They will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves.”

Walter Isaacson, chief executive of the Aspen Institute, has written biographies of Steve Jobs, Albert Einstein, Benjamin Franklin and Henry Kissinger. He is writing a book on the inventors of the computer and the Internet.

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