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August 2, 2003

against artificial intelligence

I have lost the reference, but sometime within the last 72 hours, I read a quote by an official of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the agency that helped launch the Internet and recently got into trouble for creating a "futures market" in terrorism. This official bemoaned the stupidity of his laptop, which doesn't know what he wants it to do; he called for much more public investment in artificial intelligence (AI).

I have an interesting colleague in computer science, Ben Shneiderman, who strongly criticizes AI research. His argument is not that the machines will take over the world and make us do their will. Rather, he argues that AI tends to make machines less useful, because they become unpredictable. When, for example, Microsoft Word tries to anticipate my desires by suddenly numbering or bulleting my paragraphs, that can be convenient—but it can also be a big nuisance. Shneiderman argues that computers are best understood as tools; and a good tool is easy to understand and highly predictable. It lets us do what we want. All the revolutionary computer technologies have been very tool-like, with no AI features. (Think of email, word processing, and spreadsheets.) Meanwhile, untold billions of dollars have been poured into AI, with very modest practical payoffs.

August 2, 2003 12:32 PM | category: Internet and public issues | Comments


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