Thursday, February 5, 2015

Random Balm for the Digital Soul: The Innovators by Walter Isaacson (and other chaotic detritus)

Well, every once in a while you need a nice nerdly spree.

Mine started perhaps 12 hours ago, when I sat down and resolved that if I was going to spend miserable hours or days waiting to hear back from prospective employers, I might as well go ahead and do my best to be productive in the meanwhile.  And/or enjoy myself.

Whether any of these things actually happened, is (of course) open to interpretation and debate.  In the meantime, I shall use the excellent advice of a very wise blogger and author: PERFECTION DELAYS ACTION.  This has become my mantra and shall help to motivate me in posting yet another obscure and nearly unread blog post.  Who knows - maybe in the year 2100, some poor graduate research assistant will be helping to research or ghostwrite a book on 21st century madmen and will dig up my post on one out of a billion blogs and decide (hope against hope) that I produced prolific words of wisdom, a veritable golden horde of tasty metaphysical tidbits.

Maybe I need to go back to see that shrink.

In any case, I was delighted to finish (among other things) the marvelous The Innovators by Walter Isaacson, an excellent, broad, and deep history of computing, starting with Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage and going all the way through to the present day.  You can read my review on Amazon.

The main joy for me, besides FINALLY getting a decent overview of the rise of the (for me) intimidating Information Age, and besides being shown the beauty of the intersection of arts and sciences (at last, I understand what Hitchens was trying to say in years of essays), I received a full overview of Artificial Intelligence and the competing views on the future of intelligent life on the planet.

You see, when reading brilliant authors like Ray Kurzweil, you can quickly despair and see a future in which humans become obsolete (don't get me wrong, Arthur C. Clarke painted a beautiful vision of this in 2001: A Space Oddyssey 50 years before Kurzweil began penning his bestselling nonfiction discussions of the putative Singularity).  I like Isaacson's far more nuanced view of a symbiotic relationship between humans and computers, as exemplified with the work IBM has done with Watson (one of the world's premier super computers).  "In other words, the future might belong to people who can best partner and collaborate with computers," he writes (p. 476).  Isaacson describes a researcher who helped the medical community use Watson for researching cancer, and her words are powerful:

"'I watched Watson interact in a collegial way with the doctors," she said. 'It was the clearest testament of how machines can truly be partners with humans rather than try to replace them.  I feel strongly about that.'"

Isaacson follows the narrative with a heart-warming alternative to what Jaron Lanier has (somewhat unfairly) called Cybernetic Totalism (the idea that humans will be replaced/destroyed by intelligent machines):

"Perhaps no matter how fast computers progress, artificial intelligence may never outstrip the intelligence of the human-machine partnership."  (P. 478).

Even if human intelligence (H) remains constant, the nearly infinite growth of computer intelligence (C) will, Isaacson contends, always trump mere infinite computer intelligence; in my handy-dandy dummy's equation (I have been spending quality time with Asimov's Physics, after all): HC>C.  As Bender would say in Futurama, Neat!

Isaacson's lengthy book convinces me that this is a more likely scenario, especially after detailing the many predictions and actual failures of true artificial consciousness to materialize, and detailing the long history of symbiosis or cybernetic thought throughout the history of computing innovations (see the sections on Vannevar Bush and his memex, or JCR Licklider and his philosophies).

(Yes, I know that consciousness has yet to be satisfactorily defined, and that it is possible that we ourselves are not exhibiting independent thought, etc. etc.  I haven't finished Dennett's book, and I'll probably never understand it, but I feel comfortable with the layman's understanding of the term!)

In other news, I have no idea why AdSense is giving me the middle finger (but shall continue valiantly to fill the void with the meaningless ravings of an unstable and sleep-deprived mind), I'm still torn between my respect for Maajid Nawaz and my instinctive antipathy for religion in general, I need to start eating better before I actually have a heart attack, and I shall always remember with great fondness the day a kindhearted Lisa Shearin answered a tweet and one of my favorite authors answered a good natured email in kind.

How can I recover my old sense of humor and lose the unwelcome grimness?

For amazing and incredible advice on breaking out of unemployed misery after a liberal arts degree:


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