The Pleasure of Automation

Jan. 23, 2011, 11:36 a.m.

As the month of January draws to an end, our classes are picked, our lives are back to an academic mess. And in the midst of all the interesting, fascinating, begrudging work that is a Stanford academic quarter, a question comes to mind: that of automation. If we could automate more and more of our academic thought—supplement it where necessary, and think creatively—could we learn in a whole new way? Could a topic that once took quarters to cover suddenly take mere days or weeks?

I am currently taking an AI class, and sometimes I wonder what the best application of this research really is. Today, the trend seems to be to substitute for things that humans are just naturally good at—driving, flying, listening, speaking, vision. I don’t understand this trend. It seems to buck everything that we know and love computers for: doing things that humans are just horrible at. Computers are wonderful at looking at complicated systems, calculating likelihoods and sums, doing things that humans find tedious and boring. This leads to better modern living.

Yet what is ‘hot’ right now all over the place is to make computers more and more human—able to detect our moods and our intuition and the things that we hold at the center of our humanity. This angers us somewhat, but most of us go back to that awesome virtual reality game and think little about it.

Sure, such interfaces are fun and wonderful to interact with. But then we end up with people that become emotionally connected to their machines, or addicted to them somehow. We all know the science fiction dystopia that this leads to.

At the heart of this is that technology shouldn’t substitute for interaction, it should enable it. It should push humanity toward a better emotional and intellectual state, not pull it down toward a dark hole of computing.

I think a truer and wiser future for the nature of computation is a deceptively effortless system of interfacing with machines. I mean that perhaps, in a century, after a nostalgic revolution for our parent’s childhoods, computers will actually be in less places. They will be better at doing specific tasks, and do them wonderfully and quickly. They will be in pristine conditions, because engineers fascinated with computing will study them and update them and work with them. In this way, personal computing will be a fad and awesome digital interfaces will be in town halls and kiosks rather than in our living room.

A better world may be one where we segregate ourselves from our computers, not attach them to our heads.

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