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Will future technology herald "the end of insight"?

Mon, 03/11/2013 - 9:08am
Chris Fox, Managing Editor

We all know the cliché regarding the robot apocalypse – we’ve even taken a few stabs at it on the Engineering Newswire. As we broach the crest of technology that operates upon the barrier between autonomous and thinking, it is easy to see the inevitability of crossing over. Immersing ourselves in a world not far off from Futurama, where robots have personalities and rights (sort of). But let’s back up, we have far more mountains to climb before we arrive at cybernetics suffrage – I’m trade marking that term, remember, you saw it here first.

Let’s start with the present. Recently, there was a drone spotted perusing the skies around New York. As with any incident like this, the media was all over it, but most assumptions have concluded that the aircraft was a modded-out model that happened to fly too high (1,500 feet). Supposing these assumptions are accurate – which after a lengthy FAA investigation, I’m sure they will be – this is just another reminder at how readily available emerging technology is, even when the powers that be try to contain it (this is an arguable point I won’t tackle here).

The idea of a civilian-controlled drone is a little unnerving, but looking at drones as a whole, it was inevitable. The tech that our (and various other) governments have their hands on is far more rattling. An article in Time last month said, “In a way, drones represent the much delayed coming of age of a field that has experienced a prolonged adolescence, namely robotics,” but, “like Darwin’s finches, they’re evolving furiously to fill more and more operational niches and creating new ones as they go.” This is to say, like so many things in popular culture, until the public takes significant notice, the industry sits in a slow churning of progress – cough3Dprinterscough.

While the idea of drones patrolling our streets is creepy and morally complex issue, the eerily real feeling that I get when I read comments like, “They’re machines with ghosts in them, and the ghost is saying, ‘I can see you, but you can’t see me’” inevitably leads me to an end-of-days Terminator cliché.

Slate recently ran an article from Future Tense that brought a new twist to my thoughts on this topic. Will computers be able to, one day, make scientific discoveries we can’t understand?

As quantum technologies become more a feasibly possible, they have potential to quickly solve problems before we know questions. This disconnect from the origin of inquisition is already occurring in mainstream society. As the push for STEM education progresses and companies continue to complain about an under-qualified employment pool, it isn’t far off to assume that we will have computers solving most of our questions with complex algorithms and grinding hard drives, while we concern our complex thoughts with the latest version of Angry Birds or Words with Friends.

The Slate article quotes mathematician Steven Strogatz’s argument, saying, “these [computer programs like Eureqa] could be harbingers of an ‘end of insight.’ We had a wonderful several-hundred-year run of explanatory insight, beginning with the dawn of the Scientific Revolution, but maybe that period is drawing to a close.” Engineers are sure to stretch out the human reign for some time, but there are areas where laziness or the need for efficiency has edged some critical thinking out of the realm of design, as it has in many other facets of our society.

So, will computers make discoveries and progress the discovery of our world and beyond without our assistance? I certainly hope not, but it is an ominous possibility. As we progress as a species, the quest for insight and further inquisition must remain steadfast if we are to outthink our mechanical counterparts. Judgment Day might look less like a robot apocalypse and more like a collective brain-drain, but, either way; it is always a sobering potentiality. If we allow ourselves to slip into a comfortable satisfaction with our intellect, we’ll quickly find ourselves in a Socratic trap; “True knowledge exists in knowing that you know nothing.”

What’s your take on the future of technology? Is there an impending robotic doomsday looming just over the horizon or will technology always bow to our will? Email chris.fox@advantagemedia.com or comment below.

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