One prediction that divides opinion is the coming technology ‘Singularity’ – the point where computing intelligence is predicted to surpass human intelligence. I’m not a fan of the prediction. Not least because we still don’t fully understand how the organic brain works. To compare with manufactured technology based on raw processing power, speed and storage capacity feels fundamentally flawed.
Such predictions show a tendency to diminish the importance and value of human traits. Do emotions have no role to play? What sort of world would that create?
This was highlighted in an article yesterday – Why new technologies could never replace great teaching:
I cannot think of one single occasion when someone has stopped me to recall fondly about an inspirational and influential piece of computer software. And yet I get letters from former students eulogising over a teacher who changed the direction of their lives and without whom they would not be in the position they are today. That is the result of trust, about a relationship between the teacher and the child.
Nearly 10 years ago, I attended an analyst conference where the following comment was made:
A well implemented Customer Relationship Management (CRM) system can help increase sales by 6%. An experienced salesperson will outsell a novice by 40%. Ask a salesperson what features they want in a CRM and they will say, ‘help me sell more stuff’. Ask a manager, and they will come up with a long list of requirements to improve reporting. End result: less customer-facing time and fewer sales…
And yet still organisations will invest untold amounts of money to come up with a system to eliminate the need for people. Why the desire to devalue human abilities? Is it because some people are uncomfortable with the messy chaotic state that is human nature? Or a fear that perhaps luck plays a far bigger part in outcomes than we’d like to admit?
Whatever the reasons, the unpredictability of human emotions define what it is to be alive. Before trying to replicate the human brain, perhaps more technologists should first ask: why do we have a brain?
Back in 2005, I attended a lecture at the Royal Society titled ‘The Puppet Master: How the brain controls the body’, delivered by Professor Daniel Wolpert. The talk was focused on the following:
In the world of organic matter, what differentiates animals and plants? The ones with brains can move.
If the whole point of having a brain is to give us movement, is the predicted technological singularity missing the point? Because the focus seems not to be on making machines move. If anything, it’s to allow us to continue to exist without moving at all. Some progress.
The Puppet Master talk explored the role of our senses in helping make optimal decisions:
Movement is surrounded by uncertainty, noise, that affects and influences our senses. The criteria for making the best decision is not always obvious.
If noise influences and interrupts our senses, and our brains have to adapt to it in order to make optimal decisions about movement, why don’t our senses do a better job of filtering and reducing noise? It is probably because there are times when we need noise… Without it, parents probably wouldn’t wake up when the baby starts crying.
I love digital technology. It has democratised access to knowledge and helped flatten the world. As someone who does not have a trace of blue blood in their heritage, I consider that to be a wholly postive outcome. But it is important to also still appreciate what it is to be human. That there is value way beyond being able to process data.
- Why new technologies could never replace great teaching – The Guardian, June 2013
- If this were a pill, you’d do anything to get it – Washington Post, April 2013
- The Technological Singularity – Wikipedia
Flickr image: ‘Human / Robot’ kindly shared by Emilie Ogez