Monday, June 30, 2008

Network Centrality: Making Us Stupid, Says Atlantic Monthly

"Is Google Making Us Stupid?" asks Nicholas Carr on the cover of this month's Atlantic Monthly. In a nutshell, Carr laments the decline of "deep reading" and suspects that we are losing "deep thinking" as well. I would not argue the "deep reading" point, but the connection to "deep thinking" is debatable and surely this excellent rebuttal is not the last blog post that will take Carr to task.

Here I will argue Carr on a different point. About two-thirds into his essay, he says:
"Sergey Brin and Larry Page, the men who founded Google, speak frequently of their desire to turn their search engine into an artificial intelligence. 'The ultimate search engine is something as smart as people—or smarter,' Page said in a speech a few years back. 'For us, working on search is a way to work on artificial intelligence.' In a 2004 interview with Newsweek, Brin said, 'Certainly if you had all the world’s information directly attached to your brain, or an artificial brain that was smarter than your brain, you’d be better off.' ....

[Carr continues] "Such an ambition is a natural one, even an admirable one, for a pair of math whizzes with vast quantities of cash at their disposal and a small army of computer scientists in their employ.... Still, their easy assumption that we’d all 'be better off' if our brains were supplemented, or even replaced, by an artificial intelligence is unsettling. It suggests a belief that intelligence is the output of a mechanical process, a series of discrete steps that can be isolated, measured, and optimized."
Two counterarguments immediately come to mind in response to the above:
  1. For many of us, it is quite natural to believe that intelligence can be the output of a mechanical process. I suspect I am in a minority on this point, so for those who are curious to consider intelligence outside the stuff of brains, I simply recommend the book, The Mind's Eye, a collection of essays around this topic edited by Douglas Hofstadter and Daniel Dennett.
  2. In the passage above, there is a belief espoused explicitly by Brin and implicitly by Carr that is even more unsettling (at least to me) than the notion of mechanized intelligence: That we'd be "better off" if we were smarter. Read Carr's entire essay and you'll see that, just like his essay title suggests, he is very pro-smart and anti-dumb. I'll grant that with more intelligence, we have a way to boast of being "better than..."; but being "better off" is another question altogether.
In short, Carr's passion for intelligence combined with his strict accounting of its boundaries are a recipe for fundamentalism.


My regular readers may be wondering what happened to the "celebration of competitiveness" that I promised last time. Or maybe, what does any of this have to do with networks? Good questions. I beg your patience, dear reader-- I just could not resist this tangent, and I promise to celebrate centrality, measurement, and competitiveness soon. Meanwhile, I close with this chapter from the Tao Te Ching, which comments on the consequences of increasing intelligence:

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License and is copyrighted (c) 2008 by Connective Associates LLC except where otherwise noted.


Valdis Krebs said...

Bruce, did you know that the Tao, also taught us about structural holes? Chapter 11 in most translations.

Ed Brenegar said...

Interesting perception of intelligence. Google is a great tool. A fantastic tool. But I can't say it has made me more intelligent or smarter. No matter what you search for, there is a limitation to its intuitiveness. Today I was searching for a specific trail map. Every place I linked to I found either the link was broken or the map was back ordered. To me, a truly intelligent system would know that the moment after I asked for it. Google is a great tool, but as with all tools, they are limited to their specific function operating within a defined context.
So, when I read "artificial intelligence" my first response is that it lacks vitality. Give me a room of people, and their Google tools, and that is when we'll see real intelligence at work.

Matt said...

Thanks for the link. More and more I think that Atlantic isn't understanding our connectedness. We can have these conversations and they have no idea we're having them.