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On the risk of becoming stupid

In the 1980s, I used the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency Network, or Darpanet, to collaborate with colleagues worldwide. Web browsers did not yet exist, but a text-based program called Lynx allowed us to use the Web programming  language HTML to share and format our work in progress.

     Around 1990, the Darpanet became the Internet. Soon Netscape appeared with their Navigator browser, advertising "the Web for everyone." Inspired, I purchased the domain name and created Woody's Agora. It was a blog before blogs existed. 

     One of my old musings was on software agents -- the forerunners of the algorithmic approaches, Netflix and others use to offer advice on what you may want to buy, rent or know next. Then, as now, I had a low opinion of computer suggestions.

     While the connection with this column's theme of "technology and society" is obvious, what is the connection with "risk"? Simple. Allowing software to direct our interests increases, by orders of magnitude, the risk of becoming stupid.

     Below is a lightly edited version of the piece I posted on that early blog in May 1995. I titled the entry:

On the Use of Agents Considered Harmful

Like many traveling businesspeople, I often find myself on the Hertz bus returning to an airport on Friday afternoons. During the short trip, with my eyelids beginning to droop, I love to eavesdrop on others' week-ending philosophical insights. The following event took place on the way to Chicago's O'Hare International Airport.

     Two 30ish guys were returning to the airport together; one worked at the home office of a high-tech company, call him Homes. The other worked in the field, call him Fields.

     Fields says to Homes, "Does your staff get such-and-such magazine anymore?" Homes says, "Nope. We don't get any magazines or journals for the staff. We found that they spend too much time reading.

     "In fact," Homes goes on, "we don't have subscriptions to any magazines or journals. We subscribe to a service. This service asks us what types of articles are of interest to us, which we specify as rules, like a Boolean or keyword query. The service then creates 'agents'" which apply these rules to magazines and journals, electronically 'clips' articles and delivers them to us on our network as files! That way people don't waste time."

     And they don't learn anything either, I thought.

     In a way, this is another version of "garbage in, garbage out." If the only things worth knowing are the broad categories you can specify logically, then the largest chunk of knowledge, the things you don't yet know, will be hidden from you forever: "stuff you know in, stuff you know out."

     In a deeper sense, however, this vignette points to the weakest and most dangerous part of computers: They do what you say, not what you mean. Computers can only carry out a sequence of unambiguously specified logical instructions. We cannot even guarantee, in general, that this sequence will not go into an infinite loop (see Alan Turing's halting problem).

     It is impossible for me to specify logically all of the things of interest to me in a magazine. No computer can scan a magazine and free-associate. In fact, the act of browsing is its own reward: a new product announcement here, an ad with a great layout that helps to design an input screen there, a subject that never before generated interest catches my imagination.

     Imagination! I guess that's the real problem. Logic never made innovation. Insight, serendipity and fortuitousness are the paths of innovation. Letting logical "agents" working in cyberspace determine what will be of interest to you will cut you off from the future. The richness of information on a page of Wired magazine, or even Computerworld, cannot be logically specified for retrieval.

     Cyberspace is a black box that can only be penetrated by logical query. The field of display, a 14-inch to 20-inch screen, is just not big enough to present things easily. Too many thoughts and physical manipulations are necessary to find information, let alone compare several pieces of information at the same time. Those who don't learn the limitations of cyberspace are doomed to live in it.

     Soon, Fields and Homes' conversation drifts to the financial woes of their company. It seems that the stock price has dropped below a mythical lower barrier, and that their founders' stock is next to worthless. Maybe they missed what was coming next.

The view in 2014

Today, computer suggestions (Where do my friends eat? What movies do they like? Where should I vacation next?) isolate us from the real world and plunge us into the virtual realm, where social contact is made through a smartphone. Nothing is sadder than watching a couple at a restaurant busily texting away. Are they texting each other? Will we have a society in the future, as in Isaac Asimov's "I, Robot," series, where human contact is via telepresence and physical love is with robots?

Woody Epstein serves as manager of risk consulting at Lloyd's Register Consulting Japan.

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