104 posts categorized "Paul W. Smith" Feed

For Those Who Think Machines Think They Can Think (by Paul W. Smith)

IBM-Watson

Thinking has always been an ethereal thing.  It is the most private of human activities, and while the expression “I know what you’re thinking” is part of the lingua culturae, it is a bold-faced lie.  Notwithstanding crypto-keys and blockchains, the only truly protected storage place in the universe – at least for now – is the thought-swarm deep within our respective skulls.

Brains themselves are fascinating stuff, and no one is quite sure what’s in there.  This is important, since a vessel of chemicals and tissue generating a cluster of electrical activity is one thing, but that which we call consciousness is quite another.  Physicist/Neuroscientist Paul Nunez wrestled with this, building a foundation of scientific facts with which to construct some reasonable theories.  Science also warns us, he notes, that some things are fundamentally unknowable. 

Philosophers, who spend considerable time thinking about thinking, have had a lot to say about the subject.  One of the most influential philosophical works, Discourse on Method (1637) by René Descartes, not only gave us the Cartesian coordinates that we scientists have come to love, but also introduced the discipline of Methodic Doubt.   Doubting things methodically led René to the conclusion that he could not doubt his own existence since after all he was the one doing the doubting.  The coup de grâce for self-doubters was the legendary “Cogito, Ergo Sum”, aka “I Think Therefore I Am.”

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A Line in the Silicon (by Paul W. Smith)

Draw Line in Sand BW
During the siege of the Alamo in 1836, Lt. Col. William Travis is said to have drawn a line in the sand with his sword, imploring those who were willing to defend the fort to step across.  While the story itself has since been debunked, it was good enough to insert the phrase “a line in the sand” into the popular lexicon.  Originally intended to force people to choose sides, crossing a line has also become a familiar metaphor for going just a little too far.  Politicians famously draw both types of lines, and then usually end up regretting it. 

Most of us would step across a line to proclaim that we support the benefits of technology.  There are far too many to list here, and some are more critical than others.   As recently as 1800, the average lifespan was 40 years.  Today, about 50% of the population is over 40.  Were it not for some of the benefits of technology, half of us would be dead. 

Technology is clearly beneficial, until it goes too far.   Crossing that other line has sparked debates ranging from medical record keeping and DNA databases to artificial intelligence and machine autonomy.  Technology allows us to gather huge masses of data (Forbes says we generate 16.3 Zettabytes/year) and continues to find new ways to utilize it.  Although it’s convenient to ask Siri for the closest Italian restaurant that’s open late, it also concerns me that she knows where I am, and where I have been.  The line between utility and privacy can be tough to draw.

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On Second Thought... (by Paul W. Smith)

The ThinkerMy first thought is usually one I’ve shamelessly filched from someone else, a tidbit of conventional wisdom that hijacks my brain immediately after a problem presents itself.  I envy people who can respond to the challenge of a difficult decision by saying “Let me sleep on it.”  Some may see this as procrastination in disguise, but I view it as a sign of superior mind control and emotional balance.  It offers the possibility that no short cuts will be taken and serious, thoughtful consideration will be given to the matter.

For folks like me who prefer the Easy Button, Malcolm Gladwell provided a much-needed defense.  In his bestseller Blink, he introduces people in wide ranging professions who can make brilliant decisions nearly instantly.  Why waste time mentally grinding down a problem when the first idea that pops to mind is probably the best?

Unfortunately, Malcolm also notes that most people are hopelessly inept at these snap judgments.  As he explains it, quick thinkers are good at plucking out the few key factors that really matter while the rest of us are semi-paralyzed by the overwhelming number of choices that life presents.  It’s much easier to choose between pizza and Chinese food for dinner than it is to decide “where we should eat?”

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How Convenient (by Paul W. Smith)

Tremont_House _Boston

Things don’t always turn out as promised.    If you’ve ever waited in a long line at a fast food restaurant or searched all over for a convenience store, you know what I mean. 

While it’s true that technology often woos us with bright shiny objects that make us feel special, it also portends to be a key enabler for “progress”, seeking to make our lives more convenient.  Being only human, we often take these conveniences for granted. 

In 1994, when we were living in Santa Barbara with our two young children, my wife and I were awakened one day in the predawn hours by an unmistakable shaking of our home.  My thought was that if the epicenter were very far away, this was probably a big one.  We later learned that the 6.7 magnitude quake was centered near Northridge, California. The damage in the San Fernando Valley was significant, but we were fortunate to suffer only the loss of electrical power, and the inconvenience of having to boil our water for a few days. 

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Obsolete (by Paul W. Smith)

Peak-Stand Fall

I remember when I got my first pager.  Pagers were for special people who must always be available in an emergency, and so I felt important.  The feeling was short-lived. I soon realized that it could go off at any moment, compelling me to drop whatever I was doing and head for the nearest phone (smartphones had not yet obsoleted pagers).  I also learned that it is critical to dress appropriately when wearing a pager, lest one be mistaken for a drug dealer.

Our culture’s intoxicating brew of cutting-edge technologies has always put forth shiny objects which feed our egos and, in some cases, speed our workflow.  The not-so-hidden agenda of their creators is to make them obsolete before the revenue stream wanes.  The familiar adage “technology eats its young” is not without merit.

According to the definition, an obsolete thing is outdated and therefore no longer produced or used.  As a verb, the word has become a rallying cry for business leaders – our mission is to obsolete the other guy’s stuff and take his share.  Cassette tapes, pagers, rotary phones, typewriters, phonographs, floppy disks – all these and many more could still perform their intended function, but products that seem good enough are never good enough for long.

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