A.I. and the new deskilling wave


I have an essay in tomorrow’s Wall Street Journal in which I examine how an overdependence on software is sapping the talents of professionals and argue for a more humanistic approach to programming and automation. The piece begins:

Artificial intelligence has arrived. Today’s computers are discerning and sharp. They can sense the environment, untangle knotty problems, make subtle judgments and learn from experience. They don’t think the way we think—they’re still as mindless as toothpicks—but they can replicate many of our most prized intellectual talents. Dazzled by our brilliant new machines, we’ve been rushing to hand them all sorts of sophisticated jobs that we used to do ourselves.

But our growing reliance on computer automation may be exacting a high price. Worrisome evidence suggests that our own intelligence is withering as we become more dependent on the artificial variety. Rather than lifting us up, smart software seems to be dumbing us down. …

Read on.

Image by aneequs.


Filed under Uncategorized

When Roombas kill


Jenny Shank interviews me about The Glass Cage over at MediaShift. The conversation gets into some topics that haven’t been covered much elsewhere, including my suggestion that Roomba, the automated vacuum cleaner, provides an early and ever so slightly ominous example of robot morality (or lack thereof). “Roomba makes no distinction between a dust bunny and an insect,” I write in the book. “It gobbles both, indiscriminately. If a cricket crosses its path, the cricket gets sucked to its death. A lot of people, when vacuuming, will also run over the cricket. They place no value on a bug’s life, at least not when the bug is an intruder in their home. But other people will stop what they’re doing, pick up the cricket, carry it to the door, and set it loose. … When we set Roomba loose on a carpet, we cede to it the power to make moral choices on our behalf.”

Here’s the relevant bit from the interview:

Shank: “The Glass Cage” made explicit for me a number of problems with automation that I had been vaguely worried about. But one thing that I had never worried about until reading “The Glass Cage” was the morality of the Roomba. You write, “Roomba makes no distinction between a dust bunny and an insect.” Why is it so easy to overlook the fact, as I did, that when a Roomba vacuums indiscriminately, it’s following a moral code?

Carr: It’s easier not to think about it, frankly. The workings of automated machines often raise tricky moral questions. We tend to ignore those gray areas in order to enjoy the conveniences the machines provide without suffering any guilt. But I don’t think we’re going to be able to remain blind to the moral complexities raised by robots and other autonomous machines much longer. As soon as you allow robots, or software programs, to act freely in the world, they’re going to run up against ethically fraught situations and face hard choices that can’t be resolved through statistical models. That will be true of self-driving cars, self-flying drones, and battlefield robots, just as it’s already true, on a lesser scale, with automated vacuum cleaners and lawnmowers. We’re going to have to figure out how to give machines moral codes even if it’s not something we want to think about.


Image: Juliette Culver.


Filed under Uncategorized

Thinking, straight and crooked


Computers think straight. People think crookedly. Despite all the frustrations that come with thinking crookedly, we have it much better than our calculating kin. Thinking crookedly is more interesting, more rewarding, flat-out more fun than thinking straight. Emotion, pleasure, art, ingenuity, daring, wit, funkiness, love: pretty much everything good is a byproduct of crooked thinking. To think crookedly — to be conscious and self-aware and kind of fucked-up — is a harder feat by far than to think straight. That’s why it’s been fairly easy for us to get machines to think straight, while we still have no idea how to get them to think crookedly.

“Certainly if you had … an artificial brain that was smarter than your brain, you’d be better off,” Sergey Brin once said. Certainly Sergey Brin was wrong. He was thinking too straight. The conscious human mind is buggy, impurely smart, and that’s its greatest feature.

Still, thinking straight, really straight, is a useful skill. After all, it provides a perfect complement to our own way of thinking. That’s why we made computers, and it’s why computers are so valuable in so many situations. For a crooked thinker, there’s nothing like being able to call on a straight thinker from time to time.

In an essay about artificial intelligence in Wired, Kevin Kelly makes an incisive point: for computers, consciousness would be a disaster — a bug-as-bug, not a bug-as-feature. What we want our AI aides to be, writes Kelly, are “nerdily autistic, supersmart specialists”:

In fact, this won’t really be intelligence, at least not as we’ve come to think of it. Indeed, intelligence may be a liability — especially if by “intelligence” we mean our peculiar self-awareness, all our frantic loops of introspection and messy currents of self-consciousness. We want our self-driving car to be inhumanly focused on the road, not obsessing over an argument it had with the garage. The synthetic Dr. Watson at our hospital should be maniacal in its work, never wondering whether it should have majored in English instead. As AIs develop, we might have to engineer ways to prevent consciousness in them.

All along, our all-too-human AI boffins have been pursuing the wrong goal. If the value of our computers lies in the complementary nature of their intelligence, the last thing we’d want to do is turn them into crooked thinkers like ourselves. Who wants a fucked-up computer?

Image: TempusVolat.


Filed under Uncategorized

Desperate scrapbookers


“In 1881, when Monte Grover, a Wyoming prostitute, pasted published poetry into her scrapbook, she followed a common practice of using clippings to construct an idealized life by isolating a set of values that she found around her. She preserved marks of her inner identity and her best self within a scrapbook. People today, more than a hundred years later, find their identities recorded and inscribed in bureaucratic files and data banks; their official human identities are found in X rays, birth certificates, driver’s licenses, and DNA samples. But a scrapbook represents a construction of identity outside these formalized and authoritative records. It is the self that guides the scissors and assembles the scraps.” —Susan Tucker, Katherine Ott and Patricia P. Buckler, The Scrapbook in American Life, 2006

It struck me, as I was scrolling through some guy’s Tumblr today, that the scrapbook has become our essential cultural form, the artifact that defines the time. Watching TV shows and films, reading books and articles, listening to songs: they all still have their places in our lives, sure. But it’s scrapbooking, particularly of the unbound, online variety, that consumes us. If we’re not arranging our own scraps, we’re rummaging through the scraps of others.

“Cut-and-paste”: the scrapbooking metaphor has long suffused our experience of computers. Now, the scrapbook is the interface. The cloud is our great shared scrapbook.

Pinterest makes its scrapbooky nature most explicit, but, really, all social networking platforms are scrapbooks: Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, Flickr, Ello, YouTube, LinkedIn. Even the more basic communications media — email, texting, etc. — feel more and more scrappy, now that we don’t bother to delete the messages. (“It deepens like a coastal shelf,” wrote Philip Larkin, and indeed it does.) Blogs are scrapbooks. Medium’s a scrapbook. A tap of a Like button is nothing if not a quick scissoring.

Scrapbooking and data-mining are the yang and the yin of the web: light and dark, aboveground and underground, exposed and hidden. Today’s scrapbooks serve both as a counterweight to the bureaucratic file and as part of the file’s contents. The Eloi’s pastime is fodder for the Morlocks.

Inherently retrospective — a means of preemptively packaging the present as memory — the scrapbook is a melancholy form. Pressed insistently forward, we spend our time arranging the bits and pieces of our lives into something we think looks something like us. If the material scrapbook of old was familial and semiprivate, the new scrapbook is social and altogether public. It’s still a melancholy form, but now it’s an anxious one, too. It’s one thing to construct an idealized life, a “best self,” for your own consumption; it’s another thing to construct one for all to see.

“It appears, then, that scrapbook-making as a ritualized, order-inducing gesture is both an acknowledgement of and a response to the heightened sense of fragmentation which has attended the experience of modernity,” wrote Tamar Katriel and Thomas Farrell in their 1991 article “Scrapbooks as Cultural Texts.” They may be right. And maybe the appeal of the digital form of scrapbooking is that it’s all-encompassing and never-ending: as long as you’re arranging your fragments, you don’t have time to realize that they’re fragments. The lack of coherence just means that a piece is still missing.

Image: Wendi Dunlap.


Filed under Uncategorized