“I don’t know what happened,” said the girl at the checkout desk. “The system is down. We’ll have to process you offline.”
“Yes, of course,” we say soothingly. “Computers have minds of their own, don’t they?”
Indeed they do. The experts keep talking about the wonders of AI (artificial intelligence). But there is surely some sort of computer-based intelligence there already, a bit sulky, and prone to strange behaviour at times, but when in a good mood, a most useful ally.
At their best, our various devices empower us. On the train, the carriage clicks, dings and carols to the sounds of mobile phones. “I’m on the train—just going past Woolies … now. Love you.” How else would we have found out that other people routinely say that they love each other? I am shamed by my relatively inhibited discourse.
Provided we remember to re-charge them, with a laptop or even just a cellphone we can work from just about anywhere. And where would we be without Google, the universal search engine that many credit with almost oracular powers? With its help, the vast network of computers known as the internet is capable of transporting us into worlds of—what exactly?
I was going to say “information”, but that is far too broad a term. Google may not be offering to predict the future (although I am sure the boys and girls at Google’s many labs are working on it). But provided you can formulate a more or less intelligible question (and even if you can’t) it will give you a reasonably clear answer, or even hundreds of answers. Admittedly, even if you Google yourself to the edge of blindness, most of the websites will say much the same thing, but many people will find that reassuring.
Indeed you can ask Google any sort of practical question, like how to remove coffee stains from your jeans, or when Elvis was born, and provided the cyber-traffic is not too intense, you will get an instant answer (interspersed with ever-increasing numbers of ads).
Beyond a context that you know, though, matters get a bit trickier. It’s a bit like asking for directions when you are in an unfamiliar place (clearly I am assuming that your global positioning system is not available). It’s usually only after you have blundered into the thing you were looking for, that the “you can’t miss it” directions make any sense.
Context is all. GPs talk drolly of competing with “Dr Google”. But if you are prone to hypochondria, Dr Google is not necessarily your best friend. Beyond the very basic stuff, anxious trawling of the internet for information on assorted symptoms is not recommended. We think we know what is going on, but many conditions have similar signs and symptoms. Even if you do self-diagnose accurately, you are soon placed in a human system that is programmed to work in certain ways, one of which is always to charge you more than you were expecting.
When I was teaching, I would try to get students to run their own reliability tests on the sundry internet sites they would plunder in their search for essay material.
“As with any information,” I would intone, “we must ask who is putting it before us, and what is their motivation in doing so?”
Wikipedia is good for an initial orientation, but after that, you have to find out stuff by yourself. Searching has been made much more intuitive—then comes the hard part of making some sort of sense of it all.
What—actually—do we know about technology? We know that it can be truly transformative. Printing, for example, was almost certainly the single most significant and also possibly the most benign technology ever invented, as it multiplied many times our power to communicate. If the monks and scribes who laboriously copied out documents by hand complained about being done out of a job, we have yet to hear of it.
It is no accident that the first thing ideologues, anywhere, try to do is to dramatise their rightness by destroying the other lot’s ideas. The Nazis burned Jewish books. Protestants and Catholics burned each other’s books. Islamists attack libraries. In the age of the internet, the Chinese government restricts access to websites it regards as subversive.
The business press is full of excited reportings of disruptive technologies. My son tells me we will, perhaps quite soon, be whisked from A to B by autonomous vehicles that will take us to our destination without any apparent human intervention. Even Uber, the so-called ride-sharing service that has decimated the taxi industry, will soon be able to do without its human contractors.
Computers never tire, they never get bored, and they never forget. With appropriate programming, they bring together vast amounts of data and the best decision-rules we can muster. As a result, we have information systems whose performance at specific tasks exceeds that of even the most sensational human practitioner. Computers routinely beat the best human chess players. Recently a computer beat the world’s best Go player.
Young entrepreneurs with high IQs who hang around Silicon Valley tell us that someday soon we will have solved the problem of intelligence itself, thereby ushering in a future in which humanity itself will be redundant. What price education, then? Will our children, or our children’s children, simply abandon the grim task of programming an organic robot (namely, ourselves) to do stuff, when there will be an app somewhere that will do it better? I saw an ad recently that was somewhat ominous. “Don’t just Google how to get a promotion,” it said, “come and do our MBA.”
Or will we continue to want to interact with other humans, rather than with machines? We are strange creatures. We already have the means for most of us to work from home, but we crave the human contact of work. And our bosses cannot bear for us to be out of their sight, so we continue dutifully to show up at the office where, surrounded by the latest gadgets, we work longer hours than we need to, to show our dedication.
Technology may enable us to do new things, but a good deal of it helps us to do more of the things with which we are already familiar. The impact may not be quite as labour-saving as we think. I remember my father telling me that the invention of the petrol-powered lawnmower was a mixed blessing, as it meant that hard-pressed suburban blokes like him had to mow much bigger areas of grass than previously.
Washing day used to be a symphonic occasion of boiling, banging and mangling. Thank goodness the old coppers were replaced by washing machines. I suspect, though, that one result is that clothes are washed far more frequently than they would otherwise have been.
The Greeks, as usual, foresaw it all. Prometheus stole fire from the gods, but was punished by being chained up while his liver was eaten by a giant eagle. And poor old Tithonus’s goddess girlfriend petitioned successfully for immortality on his behalf, but then forgot to stipulate that ageing should be delayed. Science is one thing, but when dealing with technology, you really do have to make sure you read the fine print.
We should be careful what we wish for. Thanks to modern medicine and improved nutrition, most of us can expect to live longer lives than our forebears. Yet we still want more. With gene-based therapies, it may be possible to prepare individualised treatments that will slow down the ageing process to the extent that most of us will live, in reasonable health, to well beyond a hundred. I am not altogether sure, though, that this would be a good thing. Imagine childhood and adolescence lasting forty years. The kids would never leave home.
One of the saving graces is that the nasty people eventually die. Having them around for even longer does not bear thinking about.
But of one thing I am certain. When the rest of humanity has long since disappeared up its own app, and the earth is about to be engulfed by the sun, there will still be blokes wearing hi-vis vests, digging up the roads.