There were quite a few posts on Andrew McAfee’ s keynote at the recnet Boston Enterprise 2.0 conference where he argues that machines are getting smarter than people.
Before we bow down too low to our new masters I would say “it depends.” As Don Norman argues in Things That Make Us Smart it is time for us to adopt a more human-centered perspective and to insist that informational technologies enhance and complement human cognitive capacities rather than undermine them.
Harvard historian Niall Ferguson wrote, “It is the unforeseen that causes the greatest disturbance, not the expected.” One of the skills that people have over computers is knowing where to look next and to quickly see anomalies. If you dumb down a task you will likely take away the person’s ability to see the unexpected.
Most external algorithms and machine driven intelligence rely on rules and predetermined taxonomies that can hide the unexpected. People-centric tools can enhance our natural, and perhaps evolutionary, cognitive abilities to notice the unexpected.
IBM’s Watson has demonstrated that you can build a machine to handle some level of cognition. However, this takes considerable effort. Watson was built and trained by a team of experts over a number of years. It uses math algorithms coupled with semantic analysis to allow it to understand a natural language question and determine the probability that its answer is correct.
However, Watson is good for a very specific task and it is not perfect. The years of training may make it better than most, if not all, humans in playing Jeopardy. Although there is a debate as to whether it was really faster reaction times that caused its victory. Regardless, Watson will fail against humans in most of the other tasks we face every day as we just have too much flexibility in our processing power.
We sometimes underestimate our abilities. Recent research by Martin Hilbert (USC) and Priscilla Lopez (Open University of California) noted that all the computers in the world combined have just recently reached the processing capacity of one person. They wrote, "the 6.4*1018 instructions per second that human kind can carry out on its general-purpose computers in 2007 are in the same ballpark area as the maximum number of nerve impulses executed by one human brain per second."
So the issue is not whether computers will outpace people but how the two can work together. Computers are very good at doing boring tedious, repetitive tasks that drive people crazy at a rate and scale far beyond what people can do. This frees people up to do the more complex and interesting tasks.