Looking into any portion of the interior of a rocket was like looking into the abdominal cavity of a submarine or a whale. Green metal walls, green and blue tanks, pipes and proliferations of pipes, black blocks of electrical boxes and gray blocks of such boxes gave an offering of those zones of silence which reside at the center of machines, a hint of that ancient dark beneath the hatch in the hold of the bow — such zones of silence came over him.
Whatever pretensions we wrap them in, they are all escape modules, variations on an old theme. Tragic. Comic. Pathetic. Heroic.
Imagine that you lived in a highly segregated neighborhood, segregated according to political and cultural sensibility, and it was campaign season, and all your neighbors had political signs out in front of their houses, and all the signs were identical, and you, too, had the same sign out in front of your house, and whenever you looked at the sign you felt good about yourself, because you knew you were doing your part, you knew you were taking a stand, you knew it was the right stand, and you knew your voice was being heard. #NeverLand.
Getting machines to understand, and speak, the language used by people — natural language processing — has long been a central goal of artificial intelligence research. In a provocative new interview at Edge, Stephen Wolfram turns that goal on its head. The real challenge, he suggests, is getting people to understand, and speak, the language used by machines. In a future world in which we rely on computers to fulfill our desires, we’re going to need to be able to express those desires in a way that computers can understand.
We’re amazed that Siri can answer our questions. But, as Wolfram points out, Siri’s ability to make sense of human language is profoundly constrained. You can’t have a deep or subtle conversation with a computer using human language. “It works pretty well when you’re holding up your phone and asking one question,” he says. “It’s a pretty successful way to communicate, to use natural language. When you want to say something longer and more complicated, it doesn’t work very well.” The problem is not just a consequence of the limits of natural language processing. It’s a consequence of the limits of natural language. We think of human language as all-encompassing (because it encompasses the whole of our conscious thought), but the language we humans speak is particular to our history. It has, as Wolfram puts it, “evolved to describe what we typically encounter in the world.” It’s absurd to assume that our language would do a good job of describing the way computers encounter the world.
If we’re going to depend on computers to fulfill our purposes, we’re going to need a shared language. We’re going to need to describe our purposes, our desires, in a code that can run successfully through a machine. Most of those who advocate teaching programming skills to the masses argue that learning to code will expand our job prospects. Wolfram’s view is more interesting. He argues that we need to learn to code in order to expand our ontological prospects.
In adopting a new language, a machine language, to describe our purposes, we will also, necessarily, change those purposes. That is the price of computer automation. “What do the humans do” in a world where “things can get done automatically?” Wolfram asks. The answer, of course, is that we compose the instructions for the machines to follow to fulfill our wishes. Will it compile? is the iron law of programming. Either the machine can follow the instructions written for it, or it can’t. Will we compile? would seem to be the great ontological question that lies ahead of us in our automated future. Have we formulated our purposes in such a way that machines can carry them out?
Computers can’t choose our goals for us, Wolfram correctly observes. “Goals are a human construct.” Determining our purposes will remain a human activity, beyond the reach of automation. But will it really matter? If we are required to formulate our goals in a language a machine can understand, is not the machine determining, or at least circumscribing, our purposes? Can you assume another’s language without also assuming its system of meaning and its system of being?
The question isn’t a new one. “I must create a system, or be enlaved by another man’s,” wrote William Blake two hundred years ago. Poets and other thoughtful persons have always struggled to express themselves, to formulate and fulfill their purposes, within and against the constraints of language. Up to now, the struggle has been with a language that evolved to express human purposes — to express human being. The ontological crisis changes, and deepens, when we are required to express ourselves in a language developed to suit the workings of a computer. Suddenly, we face a new question: Is the compilable life worth living?
I apologize for that headline, but you can only be so delicate in discussing a rectal thermometer with a Bluetooth transmitter. Along with a speedy network connection, the Vicks SmartTemp Wireless Thermometer comes with a smartphone app that allows you to track your or your child’s body-temperature stream, share the data with Apple Health and other commercial services, and upload the readings to the cloud for safekeeping and corporate scanning. I sense the device has a rich symbolic meaning, but I find that I’d prefer not to know what it is.
“A smartphone can get you a ride but a car can’t get you a date,” blogged venture capitalist Fred Wilson, revealing a remarkable ignorance of the entire modern history of youth culture. “The smartphone wins.”
Wilson’s words were inspired by a November 2013 interview with another prominent VC, Marc Andreessen. America’s love affair with the automobile is over, Andreessen declared. As evidence he pointed to a putative sea change in young people’s attitudes toward cars: “Today, ask kids if they’d rather have a smartphone or a car if they had to pick and 100% would say smartphones. Because smartphones represent freedom. There’s a huge social behavior reorientation that’s already happening.” I’ve never found financiers to be reliable guides to what kids are up to, but in this case Andreessen was just recycling a view that has achieved meme status in recent years: Americans are losing their taste for driving, and that trend is particularly pronounced among the young.
At about the same time Andreessen was opining about how young folks love their tech but don’t give a crap about their wheels, MTV was launching an extensive survey of the attitudes of millennials. The network interviewed nearly 4,000 people between 18 and 34. One of the topics discussed was cars and driving. MTV researcher Maureen Healy detailed the findings in a January 2015 event, as Business Insider reported:
[Healy] started the presentation by focusing on the “myths” about millennials and driving and promptly dispelling them. She noted that 80% of millennials get around by car most often and actually cover more ground than baby boomers and Generation Xers, due to millennials’ greater amount of spare time. As for the belief that millennials have little interest in getting a license and prefer other forms of transport, Healy pointed to the restrictive driving laws for people ages 15-21, such as restricted driving hours and the amount of people allowed in the car.
There were also some surprising (for those who thought millennials didn’t like cars) statistics generated in this survey. For instance, 70 percent of millennials enjoyed driving vs. 58 percent of boomers and 66 percent of Generation Xers. The study also found that 76 percent of millennials would rather give up social media for a day rather than their car while 72 percent would give up texting for a week rather than their car for the same period of time.
The study also found that 70 percent of millennials say they “like driving a lot,” 82 percent of millennials “find it exciting to buy or lease a new car,” 75 percent of millennials “feel like they couldn’t live without their current car,” and 85 percent of millennials look forward to one day owning their “dream car.”
The young still love cars, in other words, and that affection shows up clearly in recent sales figures. Americans bought a record number of cars in 2015 — 17.5 million of them, more than in any previous year — and leading the sales surge were young buyers, as the Wall Street Journalreported yesterday in an article titled “Younger Buyers Help Keep U.S. Car Sales Humming”:
Brett Howard walked into Galpin Ford in North Hills, Calif., on Black Friday to buy the first new car of his life. He drove away in a black Mustang coupe, one of the hottest models in U.S. showrooms. … “I love driving,” [27-year-old] Mr. Howard said, noting his peers are the same way. …
Mr. Howard said he isn’t a candidate for ride sharing or shuttling services like Uber Technologies Inc. Buying his first used car at 14 and fixing it up in the two years before he could drive, he feels one of the few places to “release your mind” is behind the wheel. The data suggest a lot of people feel the same way even if escalating student-debt levels and migration to urban city centers are somewhat delaying new-car purchases among people under 40. …
In 2010, as the industry was rebounding from one of the worst years in the postwar era, J.D. Power estimates those born between 1977 and 1994 (the firm considers them Gen Y) made up only 17% of sales, or 1.6 million vehicles. Five years later, that number has grown to 28% of sales, or 3.3 million vehicles. The impact of baby boomers and Gen Xers on industry volume has flat lined or fallen back during that same period.
What does the distant future hold for car ownership and driving? Beats me. But I would be wary of putting a lot of stock in the grand sociological predictions of venture capitalists, no matter how confidently they’re expressed. VCs are as foolish as the rest of us. They love data when it backs up their prejudices and ignore it when it doesn’t. I’d also be wary of confusing temporary behavioral changes tied to the economic cycle with deeper changes in attitudes.
As for Andreessen’s claim that smartphones represent freedom, I would guess the kids are a bit more nuanced in their views.
Image: Dennis Wilson and Chevy, from Two-Lane Blacktop.