Sunday, January 5, 2014

Our New Computer Overlords?

Blogger's Note: Understand that I am not saying revolutionary inventors were merely accused of being crazy fools but then were proven right by time. That's a boring and unoriginal claim. I'm saying they actually were crazy fools, only different from ordinary fools by their ability to bring their crazy visions to fruition.  

Some people think the day is not far off when computers will "wake up," start developing technologies on their own initiative, and refashion society to their own benefit and not necessarily mankind's.

I think this is off-base for many reasons but will go into just one. It has to do with a misconception about how technological progress occurs. Most people think it is driven by a rational process of matching necessities with inventions, a process computers could and are programmed to do. But history doesn't support this naive viewpoint and it is not too hard to understand why.

First, the history. The big technical leaps are almost always driven by a person who mysteriously develops a vision of a new machine or process, and literally cannot rest until it is brought to fruition. Charles Goodyear was laid low by stomach trouble, then inexplicably became obsessed with gum rubber in the early 1830s. He spent the next eight or so poverty-stricken years inventing vulcanization.

Wilbur Wright got whacked in the face by a hockey stick and couldn't go to Yale, so he had to stay home and take care of his mother while she died of TB. In his boredom he designed and built printing presses, bicycles, and gliders. By the time the establishment realized an airplane might be useful, Wright was already years ahead, and got his in the air while theirs sunk to the bottom of a river.

Steve Wozniak wanted a computer really badly (why?!), but they cost $50,000 and he was just a college dropout. So he built his own computer from spare parts. His employer, Hewlett-Packard, knew a lot about electronics and rationally determined that there was no market for a home computer, so they declined any interest in the invention. Wozniak was ready to give away the plans to his friends, when Steve Jobs, out of his mind on LSD, said we should manufacture and sell this thing.

I could go on. A critic will say: all of these people were immersed in the technology of their time and were personally faced by the need for an advance, so it is quite rational that, for instance, Ford built an economical automobile. My answer is that thousands of other people were situated similarly to Ford, so this can't explain why Ford (and a few others) made the great leap but others didn't. There has to be another reason and I would argue that it was an irrational streak deep down in Henry Ford's mind and character.

Why has it happened this way time and again? It's simple statistics. In every large group of people who are technically capable of inventing the Next Big Thing, a few will be dumb or crazy enough to actually do it before it makes sense to. Because they jump the gun, often they end up broke, ripped-off or laughed at. But by the time the money starts rolling in, it'll be too late for the rational, rule-following engineer. We're really talking about two completely different kinds of personalities when we talk about the true revolutionaries and the merely competent. I'm no revolutionary and don't want to be; most people don't. Some days I even wonder about the competence!

Finding out what people want first, and then inventing it, can only generate more of the same. It can never create really revolutionary technologies. If you had asked someone in 1985 whether he would be willing to pay $100 a month for a combination phone, Walkman and camera, the answer would have been, "I wouldn't pay $10 a month for one. I don't know what I'd do with it." People had to see smartphones before they realized they wanted one. You have to see it before you can believe it. And you have to be crazy to see it before it exists. Computers aren't crazy.

The thing about computers is they can only follow understood processes that can be broken down into logical steps. But the really big inventions didn't happen this way. In fact, we don't know how they happened. So I don't lose much sleep worrying about computers inventing anything. Only a buggy or haywire computer would invent a way to protect yourself from disease by...injecting yourself with a disease.

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