For the past few weeks I’ve been picking up and putting down books – one of them was The Big Switch, by Nicholas Carr. Today, I completed reading the book.
Nicholas Carr did a fantastic job at building parallels between the evolution of the electrical power grid in this country and the birth of cloud computing. On a similar note, Wired has a great article, called Planet Amazon, in its May 2008 publication that tells the story of Amazon’s cloud. Be sure to check it out. Wired referred to Amazon’s offering as Hardware as a Service (HaaS). It’s also known as Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS).
While I applaud Nicholas’ insight into cloud computing and the future of ‘how’ we will develop in the near future, I was startled when he started discuss the inevitable control computers would have over us as we continued to integrate them – even biologically. The book takes exception to the work that marketers are currently accomplishing in leveraging data – and almost takes a frightening look at where this might be in the future.
Every time we read a page of text or click on a link or watch a video, every time we put something in a shopping cart or perform a search, every time we send an email or chat in an instant-messaging window, we are filling in a “form for the record.” … we’re often unaware of the threads we’re spinning and how and by whom they’re being manipulated. And even if we were conscious of being monitored or controlled, we might not care. After all, we also benefit from the personization that the Internet makes possible—it makes us more perfect consumers and workers. We accept greater control in return for greater convenience. The spider’s web is made to measure, and we’re not unhappy inside it.
Manipulation and control are very strong words that I can not agree with. If I can utilize a customers data to try and predict what they may want, I’m not controlling them or manipulating them into making a purchase. Rather, in return for providing the data, I’m simply trying to provide them with what they might be looking for. That’s efficient for all parties involved.
Control would indicate that the interface has somehow overcome my free will, which is a ridiculous statement. We’re all mindless zombies on the Internet that don’t have the ability to defend ourselves against a well-placed text advertisement? Really? That’s why the best ads still only gain single digit click-through rates.
As for the future of man and machine integration, I’m even optimistic about those opportunities. Imagine being able to access a search engine without the need for a keyboard and Internet connection. Diabetics would be able to both monitor their blood sugar levels AND identify the best foods to eat to provide nourishment. On a diet? Perhaps you could monitor your daily caloric intake or count Weight Watcher points as you eat.
The fact is that we have very little control over ourselves, never mind worrying about AI. We have a world with health nuts that starve their bodies, exercise nuts that wear out their joints, addicts that lie, cheat and steal to get their fix… etc. We’re imperfect machines ourselves, always trying to improve but often falling short.
The ability to skip using a keyboard and monitor and ‘plug in’ to the Internet isn’t a scary thought to me at all. I’m able to recognize that control is a term that is used loosely and, with humans, never a reality. We’ve never been able to control ourselves – and man-made machines will never be able to overcome the perfect machine that God himself has assembled.
The Big Switch is a great read and I’d encourage anyone to pick it up. I do think the questions it raises on future artificial intelligence are good ones, but Nicholas takes an alarmest view of the opportunity rather than an optimistic view of what it will do for human interaction, productivity and quality of life.