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Monday, October 5, 2015

Computers: Servants or Masters?

Computers: Servants or Masters?

Computers help us to be (or appear to be) smarter. Of course, they (1) help us to count and calculate faster. They also (2) expand our capacity to remember. Even when they seem to make us lazy about having to memorize facts, there is no denying they give us rapid access to what we, and the rest of humanity, have recorded. Further, digital technology helps us to rapidly (3) find, connect to and communicate with distant people. The equivalent of Dick Tracy’s wrist communicator is now widely available. My goodness.

All three of the above are examples of “external human augmentation.” My former career was heavily involved with all manner of computers, from micro-controllers in instruments to IBM mainframes. Now, in an era of “big data,” computers are combing through unimaginably large pools of information to predict business opportunities, invent undiscovered chemical reactions and recognize patterns of weather, disease, and crime. Computers predict the kinds of advertisements that will make us pause and look. They can build custom products to our specifications and translate any web page into dozens of languages.

In 1986, I discovered the article, “Computing as a Tool for Human Augmentation” by W. J. Doherty and W. G. Pope in the IBM Systems Journal. They pointed out that,
The IBM Thomas J. Watson Research Center in Yorktown, New York, has experienced a factor of twenty times increase in the past ten years in the amount of time its people spend using computers interactively in their work. This is twice the penetration rate of television in the 1950s. A similar degree of penetration is expected to happen in the rest of industry in the next ten years.” Boy, were they right.

We’ve clearly gotten used to computers augmenting our capacities. In some ways, technology has given us super-human abilities. Smart-phone apps can predict that you are about to be hungry, remember your favorite kinds of food, search in an unfamiliar neighborhood, and recommend a restaurant you will like… or find restaurants that people like those in your social networks have recommended.

Most of us have gotten quite dependent on our computer applications, as well. People habitually use GPS devices to find their way while driving. Now, people are even beginning to attach computer displays to their eyeglasses and researchers are working to put displays into contact lenses.

Pieces of large self-guided farm equipment already use GPS to drive in straight lines across fields. Automobile manufacturers are almost ready to make car-to-car communication and automation a standard feature. Inevitably, we will be riding in self-driving transport robots.

Several states and countries are creating standards, writing regulations and running experimental trials for self-driving vehicles. It’s already obvious they will be safer. We can expect to rent rides in vehicles with no steering wheels that show up when you want them. Their costs will be amortized across a large number of users rather than a single owner. When not needed, they can wander off to slurp up an electrical recharge or park themselves out of the way.

As with every technology, there will be issues of roll-out, shake-out, resistance, adaptation and acceptance. These are well-known and well-understood issues of change management. Change happens.

Researchers are now investigating the best ways to mix robot and human workers. The robots don’t seem to care too much, but humans prefer that the robots seem to be polite and do most of the repetitive and uncomfortable tasks. In fact, humans even seem to prefer that automated systems tell them what to do next when a computer’s efficiency algorithms exceed a human worker’s planning capacity.

People are also demonstrating they prefer a sufficiently talented robotic companion to being alone. They will sometimes confess their anxieties and health conditions more readily to an automated analyst- or nurse-proxy. They will sometimes trust the judgment of a diagnostic system that has permanent access to libraries of medical data over a haphazard consultation with a harried and hurried live doctor.


I don’t expect that, in the end, either robots or humans will fall solidly into the categories of servants or masters. Computers and robots will be our collaborators. They will be used increasingly in tasks that are too hazardous, annoying or complicated for most people. It will be a strange dance and a wild ride but, typically, most of us eventually accept and embrace new convenience technology.

David Satterlee