Can we live in a world where machines are smarter than we are?

Posted by Rob Enderle

I participated in a deep dive on IBM’s Watson earlier this week and walked away realizing in a few short years there will be machines in the world that are far smarter than we are.  

Now it is also clear to me that our government and leaders have a nasty habit of not really caring what the right answer is - as they only care about the answer that most benefits them. This will put a lot of folks in power at cross purposes to these systems.

But I wonder if we will really listen to them?

Right vs. Right

One of the best examples of this is our experience when we are growing up and then later with our own kids. Often our parents were right - but even when they weren’t they prevailed. Of course, sometimes are kids are more right than we are. This is because we tend to equate winning an argument with power and status, resenting someone who has lower status prevailing over us even if they are actually right. Simply put, we have earned the right to prevail and value that over being right. The first kind of right, that which reflects power and status, seems to trump the second kind most every time. 

You can think of those moments where a parent told you that doing something was stupid - yet you did it anyway. Or perhaps later, when your kid suggested a different approach to solving a problem and you later discovered both were right, well, I’ll bet you rarely even admit to yourself you were wrong.  

Back when I was more active in litigation I’d see this in the court room, both sides believed with great passion they were right and often the person with the greatest passion was the one that was most wrong.  But even when they lost they’d put the cause as a stupid judge when it was more likely it was them that was behaving stupidly.  

There is a great book titled “Living in a Post Fact Society” that systematically points out how and why we separate what is true from what isn’t and aggressively refuse to see the truth. Most of the examples are political in nature but the book includes stories that encompass technology and personal life decisions.  

The one conclusion that is hard to avoid? Not only are we often stupid, but we’ll fight like tigers to protect our stupidity.  

So What Happens When Computers Get Smart?

You see IBM is turning Watson into a reasoning machine which means it will often be more right than we are and this tendency will increase as it becomes more capable.  If we are smart we’ll listen but, given our past behavior I wonder if we’ll instead stop listening to Watson and instead do what we believe is right, which in most cases will be wrong, and then to prove Watson wrong move aggressively to argue against every position Watson or a system like it takes. 

For instance, if we were to ask Watson who is the best political candidate and it provided the name of someone we hated from the other party would be vote for the right person or attack Watson’s answer?  If Watson told us that the person we were dating was really bad for us would we do what we don’t do now and listen? I kind of doubt it. 

This makes me wonder that in a world of smart machines whether we’ll become dumber because we’ll move to take the alternative path, the wrong path.  

Wrapping Up: 

Shortly IBM will begin licensing a product called Watson Jr. which is like Siri but increasingly smarter. This service should help you make better decisions. However, if I’m right, we will increasingly ignore it because we won’t agree with the answers it provides.  We’ll eventually do something really stupid, suggesting we can’t live in a world with machines that are smarter than we are. Perhaps we need to fix that.     

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