Carr’s topic in the new book is automation. Although the word can ultimately be traced back to the Greek automatos, typically rendered “self-moving” or “self-acting,” Carr notes that our English word “automation” is of surprisingly recent vintage: engineers at the Ford Motor Company reportedly coined the term in 1946 after struggling to refer to the new machinery churning out cars on the assembly lines. A little over a decade later, the word had already become freighted with the hopes and anxieties of the age. Carr tells of a Harvard business professor who wrote in 1958, “It has been used as a technological rallying cry, a manufacturing goal, an engineering challenge, an advertising slogan, a labor campaign banner, and as the symbol of ominous technological progress.” Carr aims to investigate automation in all these variegated senses, and more.
The conventional wisdom about technology — or at least one popular, mainstream view — holds that new technologies almost always better our lives. Carr, however, thinks that the changes we take to be improvements in our lives can obscure more nuanced and ambiguous changes, and that the dominant narrative of inevitable technological progress misconstrues our real relationship with technology. Philosophers of technology, as Albert Borgmann said in a 2003 interview, tend not to celebrate beneficial technological developments, “because they get celebrated all the time. Philosophers point out the liabilities — what happens when technology moves beyond lifting genuine burdens and starts freeing us from burdens that we should not want to be rid of.” A true philosopher of technology, Carr argues that the liabilities associated with automation threaten to impair the conditions required for meaningful work and action, and ultimately for leading meaningful lives.
Carr’s foray into aviation is not an isolated case study. He sees it as a window into a future in which automation becomes increasingly pervasive. “As we begin to live our lives inside glass cockpits,” he warns, “we seem fated to discover what pilots already know: a glass cockpit can also be a glass cage.” The consequences will not always be so catastrophic and the systems will not always be so totalizing. But that does not make the range of technologies any less worthy of the crucial questions that Carr asks: “Am I the master of the machine, or its servant? Am I an actor in the world, or an observer? Am I an agent, or an object?”
In 2012, Seung started EyeWire, an online game that challenges the public to trace neuronal wiring — now using computers, not pens — in the retina of a mouse’s eye. Seung’s artificial-intelligence algorithms process the raw images, then players earn points as they mark, paint-by-numbers style, the branches of a neuron through a three-dimensional cube. The game has attracted 165,000 players in 164 countries. In effect, Seung is employing artificial intelligence as a force multiplier for a global, all-volunteer army that has included Lorinda, a Missouri grandmother who also paints watercolors, and Iliyan (a.k.a. @crazyman4865), a high-school student in Bulgaria who once played for nearly 24 hours straight. Computers do what they can and then leave the rest to what remains the most potent pattern-recognition technology ever discovered: the human brain.
Ultimately, Seung still hopes that artificial intelligence will be able to handle the entire job. But in the meantime, he is working to recruit more help. In August, South Korea’s largest telecom company announced a partnership with EyeWire, running nationwide ads to bring in more players. In the next few years, Seung hopes to go bigger by enticing a company to turn EyeWire into a game with characters and a story line that people play purely for fun. “Think of what we could do,” Seung said, “if we could capture even a small fraction of the mental effort that goes into Angry Birds.”
Much of the company’s success online can be attributed to a proprietary algorithm that it has developed for “headline testing”—a practice that has become standard in the virality industry. When a Dose post is created, it initially appears under as many as two dozen different headlines, distributed at random. Whereas one person’s Facebook news feed shows a link to “You Won’t Believe What This Guy Did with an Abandoned Factory,” another person, two feet away, might see “At First It Looks Like an Old Empty Factory. But Go Inside and . . . WHOA.” Spartz’s algorithm measures which headline is attracting clicks most quickly, and after a few hours, when a statistically significant threshold is reached, the “winning” headline automatically supplants all others. “I’m really, really good at writing headlines,” he told me. “But any human’s intuition can only be so good. If you can build a machine that can solve the problem better than you can, then you really understand the problem.” …
Earlier, in Casterly Rock, Spartz and I had spoken about targeted advertising. “The future of media is an ever-increasing degree of personalization,” he said. “My CNN won’t look like your CNN. So we want Dose, eventually, to be tailored to each user. You shouldn’t have to choose what you want, because we will be able to get enough data to know what you want better than you do.”
On a whiteboard behind him were the phrases “old media,” “Tribune,” and “$100 M.” “The lines between advertising and content are blurring,” he said. “Right now, if you go to any Web site, it will know where you live, your shopping history, and it will use that to give you the best ad. I can’t wait to start doing that with content. It could take a few months, a few years—but I am motivated to get started on it right now, because I know I’ll kill it.”
We’re all in competition, although we prefer not to realise it. Most achievements are only notable relative to others. You swam more miles, or can dance better, or got more Facebook Likes than the average. Well done.
It’s a painful thing to believe, of course, which is why we’re constantly assuring each other the opposite. “Just do your best”, we hear. “You’re only in competition with yourself”. The funny thing about platitudes like that is they’re designed to make you try harder anyway. If competition really didn’t matter, we’d tell struggling children to just give up.
Fortunately, we don’t live in a world where everyone has to kill each other to prosper. The blessing of modern civilisation is there’s abundant opportunities, and enough for us all to get by, even if we don’t compete directly.
Society judges people by what they can do for others. Can you save children from a burning house, or remove a tumour, or make a room of strangers laugh? You’ve got value right there.
That’s not how we judge ourselves though. We judge ourselves by our thoughts.
“I’m a good person”. “I’m ambitious”. “I’m better than this.” These idle impulses may comfort us at night, but they’re not how the world sees us. They’re not even how we see other people.
People like to invent moral authority. It’s why we have referees in sports games and judges in courtrooms: we have an innate sense of right and wrong, and we expect the world to comply. Our parents tell us this. Our teachers teach us this. Be a good boy, and have some candy.
But reality is indifferent. You studied hard, but you failed the exam. You worked hard, but you didn’t get promoted. You love her, but she won’t return your calls.
The problem isn’t that life is unfair; it’s your broken idea of fairness.
Disclaimer: The selections I use to describe the links are snippets, often edited together to better describe the original piece, each of which is worth reading on it’s original site.
Miracles sometimes occur, but one has to work terribly hard for them. – Chaim Weizmann