Age of the smart machine
Jul 23 2013
If we manage them well, smart machines will free us, not enslave us
The ten levers of smart engineering as enumerated by Alok De in the e-newsletter of Indian National Academy of Engineering (July 2013) are: ‘Need of the Hour Engineering’ (based on the premise that each era’s emphasis on the aspect of engineering is different), ‘Improvised Engineering’ (how same or similar purpose is achieved by more sophisticated technology), ‘Strip Down Engineering’ (a combination of reverse engineering and frugal engineering to give an improved product), ‘Performance Boosting Engineering’ (enhancing possibilities keeping constraints in mind), ‘IntelliSys Engineering’ (intelligent systems to improve autonomous operations), ‘Cross Pollination Engineering’ (recognition of the fact that solutions for some problems require extensive knowledge of multiple faculties ), ‘Smart Auxiliary Engineering’ (support role of engineering should not be misconstrued as engineering trivia), ‘Sustainable Engineering’ (play, if possible, zero sum game with the environment), ‘Nature Inspired Engineering’ (take lessons from the nature to design a product), and ‘Forward Looking Engineering’ (keeping in view the fusion of the physical and the digital world).
Evgeny Morozov, the author of The Net Delusion, seems worried about the ‘problemsolving power of our technologies’. With the alarming increase of this power, Morozov thinks, there exists some possibility of diminishing our ability to distinguish between important and trivial or even non-existent problems. There is no need to fix every conceivable problem just because we have smart solutions. There is no need to take advantage of smart technology’s every conceivable possibility. ‘Smart’ makes us more plastic, more programmable. Morozov’s worry is that “blinded by the awesomeness of our tools, we might forget that some problems and imperfections are just the normal costs of accepting the social contract of living with other human beings, treating them with dignity, and ensuring that, in our recent pursuit of a perfect society, we do not shut off the door to change.” Sterile and contended environments are not well-known for innovation.
This divides us into two camps. Paul Saffo, Technology Forecaster at Stanford University, calls them ‘Druids’ and ‘Engineers’; one thinks we must slow down while the other thinks technological innovations can solve all problems; one wants to return to the past while the other wants to fly to the future; one wants to ban the GMO while the other wants to create life; one thinks robot cars are unsafe while the other wonders why humans are allowed to drive at all; one is an optimist (anything can be fixed if there are enough brain, effort and money resources) while the other is pessimist (“no matter how grand the construct, everything eventually rusts, decays and erodes to dust”). Saffo’s advice: we must resist the pressure from either side. We can’t revive the past neither can build technologies that don’t carry hidden trouble.
The Economist recently asked an important question — whether the creation will be worth the destruction. This question is raised keeping in mind the impact of smart machines. According to a study made by the McKinsey Global Institute, the dramatic progress that we are seeing is due to a combination of Moore’s law and the melding of three technologies: machine learning, voice recognition and nanotechnology. The study argues that extraordinary developments will make knowledge workers more productive, and will be helpful for both entrepreneurs and consumers. The study points out justified worry and that is that modern technologies will widen inequality, increase social exclusion and provoke a backlash. The Economist writes: “Innovation will disrupt many areas of skilled work that have so far had it easy. But if we manage them well, smart machines will free us, not enslave us.”