I hate buzz words as much as the next person. I also hate tech fads. It would make sense, then, that I despise the artificial intelligence (AI) gold rush.
But I don’t. I really do buy into the AI excitement. And Kevin Kelly has a great analogy to explain my thinking.
Think of artificial intelligence like you think of electricity
Kevin Kelly wrote a book called The Inevitable: Understanding The 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future. I only just started reading it. And it’s great.
Here’s the most compelling excerpt I’ve found so far:
The AI on the horizon looks more like Amazon Web Services — cheap, reliable, industrial-grade digital smartness running behind everything, and almost invisible except when it blinks off. This common utility will serve you as much IQ as you want but no more than you need. You’ll simply plug into the grid and get AI as if it was electricity. It will enliven objects, much as electricity did more than a century past.
I think that’s the right way to think of artificial intelligence.
Looking backward, it’s not that you should have been so excited about electricity proper. What you should have been excited about was how much more useful things become when they’re electrified.
Likewise, it’s not the AI itself that’s exciting. It’s what the AI will allow things to do that’s really exciting.
Electricity reduces manual load. AI reduces cognitive load
Electricity made tasks easier by reducing the manual load. It could be as simple as not having to turn a screwdriver. It could be as transformative as having lighting at the flip of a switch. The hassle of candles disappears.
You don’t electrify all items in the same way. Sometimes the electricity generates heat. Sometimes it generates light. Sometimes it turns a motor. It took a lot of time to properly harness electricity across all the items we use in our daily lives.
If electricity reduces manual loads, artificial intelligence reduces cognitive loads. We could outsource the turning of cranks to electric motors. We’re in the process of outsourcing simple cognitive tasks to “smart” machines.
Machines already recognize faces in photos. They already unearth correlations in large data sets. They play games. They translate between different human languages.
Each of these tasks impose some cognitive load. Before AI, humans had to do the heavy lifting. As time goes on, computers will take on more and more of this work.
Our march down the AI path will be goofy at times
I think one reason AI seems a bit ridiculous is that we’re not progressing in a straight line. For every cool face recognition algorithm we develop, we also have a “smart” thermometer or “smart” food scale. And that’s okay.
We don’t know how to cognify much of the stuff around us. It’s going to take time. We’re going to reach, in a lot of cases. Much of it won’t work out initially. But we’ll practice. We’ll better understand the cognitive burden we bear when we interact with different parts of our surroundings. And as we better understand cognition itself, we’ll do better at handing these tasks off to machines.
In the case AI, I think there’s signal under all the noise
It might be artificial intelligence. Or deep learning. Or machine learning. Or big data. Or any number of other buzz words.
But it’s coming. And it’s real. We just don’t have the language yet to properly articulate exactly what’s coming, and exactly what it will mean. To this point, we’ve focused too much on artificial intelligence as a standalone concept. As we make more progress, we’ll talk more and more about the intersection between AI and the things we interact with daily.
We can think in terms of manual loads versus cognitive loads. We’ve spent a few centuries trying to outsource our manual loads. At first, it was mechanical. A wheel. A lever. Then it became electrical and chemical. We found new ways to reduce the manual effort required to perform particular tasks.
Now, we’re focused on cognitive loads. And rather than harnessing energy, we need to harness intelligence. It’ll take different forms. It’ll help us in different ways. But it’s coming, and it’ll exceed the ridiculous level of hype it’s already drowning in.