Thursday, January 26, 2012

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The dangers of Googling

  • Thursday, January 26, 2012
  • Aruntha Kanagaratnam
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  • Mary Shelley wrote ‘Frankenstein; or, the modern Prometheus’, as an allegory about technology and its ability to damage human society. She wrote in the midst of the Industrial Revolution, which caused the immiseration of large sections of the population of Britain.

    Her novel gave birth to what Isaac Asimov called the ‘Frankenstein Complex’ - the scenario in which an artificial being (a robot or an android) turns upon its creator, a theme which was developed by Karel Capek in ‘R.U.R.’ (incidentally coining the term ‘robot’- from the Czech for ‘worker’).

    This literary fashion was overthrown by Asimov himself, in his ‘Positronic Robot’ stories (in which he, in turn, coined the term ‘robotics’). Why, he argued, would a washing machine wish to destroy its maker? Indeed, the development of cybernetics has tended to follow Asimov rather than Capek.

    Electronic computers

    What we call ‘Robots’ nowadays are electronically-controlled machines capable of duplicating the actions of humans, rather than humanoid machines; for example, pick-and-place robots, production-line welding plant, lunar- and mars-rovers and computerised numerically controlled (CNC) mills. One hardly expects a computerised embroidery machine to demand hegemony over the earth.

    However, the development of electronic computers after the microprocessor revolution - which led to the ‘personal computer’ and made computing much more accessible - led to second thoughts among some scientists and philosophers; not so much paranoia about artificial intelligences taking over the world, as worries about how these machines affect the way we think and operate.

    In 1966 Joseph Weizenbaum, a German-American computer scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, developed a simple computer programme called ‘ELIZA’ (named after Eliza Doolittle in GB Shaw’s ‘Pygmalion’). It was what is now called a ‘chatterbot’, a programme capable of engaging humans in a pseudo-conversation.

    Decision-making

    ELIZA used open-ended questions in the manner of a psychoanalyst. Weizenbaum was shocked to find that people were taking ELIZA seriously, and were even trying to have intimate personal discussions with the programme. This led him to start questioning the merits of artificial intelligence.

    Ten years later, he published his seminal book ‘Computer Power and Human Reason: From Judgment to Calculation’. His central argument was the difference between making choices, an essentially human activity and decision-making, which is a computational activity which can be done by programmed machines.

    Wisdom and compassion

    Computers, Weizenbaum pointed out, are capable of making highly complex calculations but lack the facility of human judgement, which can take into consideration non-mathematical factors because they lack human qualities such as wisdom and compassion. It is their inability to make choices that ultimately limits how far computers should be allowed to make decisions.

    The internet, which was still a fledgling when ‘Computer Power and Human Reason’ came out, subsequently spread all over the world. In 2008 Nicholas G Carr, an American writer on technology and society wrote an article in ‘The Atlantic’ called ‘Is Google making us stupid?’, which explored the detrimental effects that the internet might have on human cognition and our ability to think deeply.

    Two years later he expanded his arguments in ‘The Shallows: What the Internet is doing to our brains’, a book which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Human thought, he pointed out, has been formed through the ages by what he calls ‘intellectual technologies’.

    These are tools used to find and classify information, to formulate and articulate ideas, to share know-how and knowledge, to take measurements and perform calculations, to expand memory capacity - which included alphabets, maps, printing, clocks, and finally computers. Using neuro-scientific evidence, he shows how our brains change according to these technologies.

    Modern commerce

    He also argued that each ‘intellectual technology’ promotes of new ways of thinking or extends to the general population established ways of thinking that had been limited to a small, elite group; it is associated with an ‘intellectual ethic’, a set of assumptions about the nature of knowledge and intelligence, about how the human mind works.

    Carr posits that, whereas the printed book focuses our attention and encourages deep and creative thought, the internet embodies the ‘intellectual ethic’ of speed, efficiency, optimised production and consumption; it promotes the rapid but shallow sampling of small bits of information from many sources.

    Humans, he believes, are becoming adroit at fast but shallow scrutiny, while at the same time losing their ability to concentrate and meditate upon information: our entire methodology of thinking is being changed by the internet.

    The flaws of the ‘intellectual ethic’ of the internet indicated by Carr have been worse by the necessities of modern commerce. For example, the ‘chatterbot’ pioneered by Weizenbaum is now being used in internet messaging services and chat rooms for advertising or to obtain personal information about consumers.

    Search preferences

    Internet search engines such as Google use information gathered about a person’s search preferences to guide that person to more specific information; including, incidentally, the kind of information that Google wishes that person to receive. It also uses this data to more accurately focus advertising in the searcher’s direction.

    The ultimate exemplar of the nature of the Frankenstein’s monster we have created through computers and the internet was the Global Financial Crisis, which began in late 2007. Although the underlying reasons were to do with unsound economic policies, as well as with fundamental systemic flaws, the rapidity of the collapse had much to do with programming and the rapid spread of information.

    Speculators were almost all equipped with stock market analysis software, automatically fed by price data from share and commodity markets throughout the world as well as other relevant information.

    The similarity of the programming meant that the solutions arrived at were similar, so that speculators all reacted in the same manner, creating the rapid stampedes that brought down the financial colossi.

    So it might be the ultimate Frankenstein’s Monster may not be a machine which tries to kill its creators, but modern technology which, combined with greed, will at the very least damage us horribly.

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