Intelligence is not Artificial

by piero scaruffi

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(These are excerpts from my book "Intelligence is not Artificial")

Designing Machines and Designing People

Don Norman in "Technology Forces Us To Do Things We're Bad At" (2017) has discussed this phenomenon from the design viewpoint. 90% of car accidents are blamed on human error, but it is unfair to translate this fact into "caused by humans". They are caused by the designers who designed the car in a way that causes people to make errors. Quote: the design "forces people to behave according to the machine's needs and on its terms". Since people are not good at behaving like machines, people don't do it well, and this leads to car accidents. Even the driver's "distraction" is a design problem: if the driving is too automated, the driver loses the motivation, the cleverness and the resilience that come with a fully manual experience. If you don't expect uncertainty, you won't be prepared to deal with it. When it happens, you will crash.

Technology is supposed to improve the performance of humans, but increasingly it is humans who are asked to behave in a way that improves the performance of machines. As Don Norman writes: "we are inventing people to enhance the life of machines."

One day i had an argument with a friend who used to work on a project for the self-driving car. I eventually managed to win the argument and he conceded that the self-driving car is a bad idea, a dangerous object that will make our life more miserable. It is not important here to repeat the argument and see if you agree with me. What is interesting is his conclusion: the problem is not the self-driving car itself, the problem is all those messy unpredictable humans who populate our world and who make it difficult to program the self-driving car. If we banned humans from the streets of the city, and forced them to move around only in self-driving cars, not only the self-driving car would make a lot of sense but it would also create an idyllic world in which cars could safely assume only machine actions, i.e. no pedestrian who crosses the street recklessly, and no children playing soccer in the street, no Neapolitan driver driving down a one-way street in the wrong way at maximum speed and no Arab driver parking illegally in the middle of the street. It's an old Silicon Valley adage: "Our system would work just fine if it weren't used by people".

Alas, i fear that my friend was seeing the future. Society has consistently agreed on enforcing rules and regulations on people that make it easier to automate this or that feature of our lives, whether customer support or paying utility bills or simply standing in line at the post office. I predict that cities will simply forbid pedestrians from entering streets: cities will mandate the use of self-driving cars even to simply cross streets. Problem solved: if there are no pedestrians in the streets, there can be no accidents between self-driving cars and pedestrians.

To a few of us this looks like a terrible future. The truth, however, is that whenever new technologies introduce rules and regulations in our society (e.g. the "press 1 for English, 2 for Spanish, etc" or the various numbers that identify you as a driver, a citizen, a bank customer, etc), someone points at the advantage of using them: it superficially makes our life easier, especially in all situations in which we are not skilled. Clearly, an automatic-transmission car is more comfortable than a manual-transmission one if you don't know how to shift gears, and a self-driving car is more comfortable than a regular car if you never learned how to drive or if you are a beginner. Will the mandate to use only self-driving cars on any asphalt make your life more comfortable? It all depends on how dumb and inept you have become. To me, the ultimate goal seems to be different from the one that technologists discuss: it is not about making more intelligent cars but less intelligent people. Less intelligent people are eager to adopt technology that compensates for their stupidity. If you lower the IQ of users, you can get them to use even the dumbest technology because even the dumbest technology will do something for them that they are not able to do on their own.

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