The Trouble With Intelligent Machines Is That They Create Brainless People.

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How an over-reliance on the big red button is leading us to our doom. Ish.


There's a lot of talk these days about Smart this and i- that, and recently autonomous cars have been under discussion. A lot.

Now some of you may think this is going to be an unfocussed rant about the latter. It's not. It's going to be an unfocussed rant about lots of things, and then the latter. Are you sitting comfortably? Then I'll begin.

Quick test for those of you who like me did their training and education in technical subjects in the 1970s and early 80s. How do you read a slide rule, a pair of Vernier calipers and a table of logarithms? And if you don't even know what I am talking about curse you for your youth!

You can't any more can you? Apart from the fact that you're either past or uncomfortably close to being at the business end of sixty years old and your eyes can't see the scales any more without a BIG magnifying glass, you've spent the past thirty years or so doing work with something with an electronic screen on it. Most notably with this is an electronic calculator. Whilst it's true that these take the leg-work out of doing the maths it's also true that they are contributing to an epidemic of functional innumeracy. To wit:

A young warehouseman a few weeks ago asked if he could borrow my calculator. At the time I had my arms full of ridiculously long patch cables and the calculator in question was on the bench. So I replied "yes, walk this way and we'll get it". On the way I casually enquired what he wanted to calculate, to which he replied he'd got eight boxes with eight items each in and wanted to know how many that would be in total. So I told him sixty-four, put down the cables and handed him the calculator. When he'd checked the answer he looked at me as though I'd just landed from Mars, handed the calculator back and walked off shaking his head.

I know what the trouble is here. He'd been taught rote mathematics but not his times tables. He'd relied on his little box of tricks all the way through school and although he'd got the idea of multiplication, addition, subtraction and division he'd got no feel for the underlying principles behind it. I've seen this in various management in various companies who once upon a time would have known better. They're taking an average of tot-up and divide by X, which gives them the mean, rather than looking at the mode. And using only one sample. The problem with the mean is that it can be skewed too high or indeed too low. The mode tells you what people in general are doing. Again it's a case of relying on formulaic button-pushing without thinking about what you are doing simply because you can't - you've relied on that calculator to spit out answers that are numerically true but factually useless.

Here's another example. A younger colleague is bemoaning the fact that his mobile device can't currently access the internet so he can't leave a message on social media for his girlfriend. He is asked if he has a telephone signal. When he replies in the affirmative he is further questioned as to why, then, he does not ring her up instead? He spends the rest of the afternoon feeling a dolt as the story spreads over the place like wildfire.

The point is that people are now being conditioned to push buttons without thinking. The machine does it all for them. The trouble with a machine is that it breaks. When they push buttons and nothing happens, or something does but not what's supposed to, people are losing the ability to know what to do.

Which brings me on to the subject of autonomous vehicles. Already we are seeing pilots that can't fly without electronic assistance. Now don't get me wrong, I'm glad it's not me lugging an umpteen-jillion ton weight onto a runway that's the size of a largish town's high street at 400mph and the more help they get the better. I just think it might be nice that when Mickey the microcontroller who lives under the dashboard of the Airbus decides that's he's having a mid-life crisis somebody like Captain Chesley B. Sullenberger might have his bottom parked in the big chair up front rather than a bloke who's good at pushing buttons but doesn't know how to work the flaps on his own.

I can't count the number of lorry drivers who've turned up late because their Sat-Navs sent them down the wrong road and they didn't ask any locals for directions. And we are going to see the same with self-driving cars. Placing an implicit trust in any machine without reservation is always a bad idea; particularly when you don't know how that machine works and there's nobody on hand that does. In addition, I don't know about you, but recent articles on the subject of self-driving cars are leading me to suspect a problem exists in seeing the colour white on bright sunny days, which if true is very scary indeed.

If we are going to have people using these technologies then we need to be educating them in the ground basics of how these technologies work.  You can't make an informed decision from a position of ignorance. We can't all be top-notch engineers and we can't all be good technicians. But what we can be is more competent in the STEM subjects. But we can't leave this to government and business concerns either. In an increasingly technically-led world, we have to be looking to ourselves to educate ourselves. That's why I urge everybody not to be passive consumers of new technologies but to seek to understand the workings at least to circuit board and mechanical level. There's no excuse: if you are mathematically or technologically brainless, get your head stuck into the books and if necessary take a course. It can't do you any harm and may do you a lot of good personally and professionally.

Now stop clicking your mouse about and reading the internet and go and do it!

Originally published on Linked In.

Posted by Ian Lang on Jul 10, 2016 4:31 PM Europe/London

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A view of life (it's hard) the Universe (it's quite big and mostly full of emptiness) science (it's just as hard as life but with more maths) and technology (the good, the bad and the ugly) from the perspective of a highly harassed technician, which admittedly might be skewed. They say the glass is half empty- experience tells me to check whether or not that glass is cracked and leaking, and check exactly what it's half full of. Prepare for strangeness.