Tuesday, February 15, 2011

A New Spin on "Should I get a smart phone?"

An article in yesterday's New York Times (link below) discussed advances in artificial intelligence, the future of AI and what it means to be human. As a computer scientist, many of the questions and topics posed were the same ones we have discussed for decades such as:

What are the possibilities and implications of using AI to augment human capability (i.e. help humans do better at what we already do well, or could do well) vs using AI to replace humans? The former has always been a goal with positive implications for most people and the latter has always been a goal that provokes uneasy, mixed reactions. That duality has not changed, although the article makes the point that the lines are blurring between the two.

An interesting example is the pervasive use of smart phones. No argument: they augment human capabilities: find information faster, sooner, in more detail, add to it, pass it on, discuss it, disseminate. Provoke thought, enlightening discussion, be "on" whenever we want.

I don't have a smart phone and people sometimes say to me: "Lisa, you of all people? No smart phone?". It isn't that I don't want one. My gadget nerd side wants one - bad. On the other hand, there is the issue of the blurring line between my human self and, dare I call it, my technology self. Something there says: maybe not a good idea?

I am already mainlined into my computer almost 24/7 and I when I think about the withdrawal symptoms that occur when I am off for very long...hmmm. Is my computer a part of my bloodstream and nervous system? When did that happen anyway? If we agree that yes, my computer is an extension of me, what happens if I get a smart phone and it never leaves my pocket. I have friends (you know who you are :) who post from their smart phones wherever they are (the library, the donut shop, the laundromat, 15 feet away from the parking lot) and I wonder what would happen if they were forced to stop? Could they do it without becoming as grouchy as a caffeine addict (of which I am one) who misses their morning coffee? Not a pretty sight.

The very last line in the NYT article is a quote that really bothered me: “The essence of being human involves asking questions, not answering them,” he [John Seely Brown] said.

Say what???????? Evolution would argue otherwise. Besides which, life would be SO BORING if I didn't spend time seeking answers to the endless barrage of questions my mind comes up with. 

So...as we become more and more connected, and the lines blur between augmentation of human abilities and the replacement of human requirements to actually do things for ourselves ("hey, if I can have the computer take care of it, why should I do it?" goes the refrain) do I want a smart phone really?


This is why I have not bought one yet. I need to work this out - am I enhancing myself in a beneficial way or am I creating a part of myself that will supplant myself while I'm obliviously typing away?

I want to be the one answering the question. I don't want a computer to answer it for me. Much as I love them.

NYT Article that inspired this post (and discusses many topics that have nothing to do with what I discussed here): http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/15/science/15essay.html?pagewanted=1&_r=1&nl=todaysheadlines&emc=tha26

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