But they are useless. They can only give you answers

Photo credit: The Museum Of Ridiculously Interesting Things

So said Pablo Picasso, in conversation with William Fifield, speaking about the “enormous new mechanical brains or calculating machines” we would later refer to familiarly as “computers”. I found this out in the nicest possible way, having come across the quotation while reading Brynjolfsson and McAfee’s The Second Machine Age, reviewed here by me yesterday. The quotation, on page 187, referred me to the Notes at the back of the book, which then led me to a wonderful site, Quote Investigator, and to this piece there.

That in turn reminded me of Mr Bhowmick. I think he was Mr J.B.Bhowmick, but I can’t be sure. He was the last Maths teacher I had at school. He was the one who was going to guide our class of forty 15- and 16-year-olds through the last two years of mathematics in school, leading to what was known then as Senior Cambridge. On his first day with us, he promised to award the Nobel Prize, personally, to anyone who actually managed to fail “Add Maths”, more formally referred to as Mathematics With Additional Mathematics. That set the tone for the rest of his lessons.

A few weeks later he walked into class and asked “So what’s the maximum number of electrons in the nth orbit of an atom?”. Immediate groans and sounds of derision. Doesn’t he know this is Maths class and not Physics class? A few hands went up. He pointed at one. 2n squared. At which point he said “Now prove it.” Again, a few hands went up. One was chosen, who proceeded to walk up to the blackboard, grab the chalk proferred, and “prove” it….. inasmuch as proof by induction is proof. And he walked back, smugly, to his seat. Job done.

And then. And then something very important happened.

“From now on, you will earn my respect, not by the answers you give, but by the questions you ask”.

The game had changed. Giving the right answer was easy. Asking the right question…now that was interesting. He had us from then on. In his own way, Mr Bhowmick had introduced us to the Socratic Method. And it stayed with me, and probably with the rest of the class, for the rest of my life.

I’ve referred to that story before, and I’m sure I will again. It was an important moment in my life.

Outsourcing boring tasks to computers

I thought about it again when seeing the Picasso quote. And sort of agreed. When computers can earn the respect of Mr Bhowmick, that’s when they start doing something significant. Until then, they’re in the useless-according-to-Picasso class.

Which is no bad thing. When I was in school, we may well have been the last batch to use slide rules. I can’t remember seeing my sister, two years younger than me, or my brother, a further two years younger, ever using one.

I haven’t seen any of my children use tables of logarithms. They haven’t had to mull over the mantissa or care about the characteristic.

So far, only one of my children has been observed referring to trigonometric tables.

These are good changes. As far as I am concerned, anyway. We should be outsourcing such menial tasks to computers for sure. That’s a view I’ve held for decades, one that formed while I was still at school. Looking up columns and columns of tables was never something that appealed to me. [Sometimes, when I see spreadsheet jockeys around me, I wonder. Are they secret table-addicts hell-bent on foisting their habit on the rest of us?]

I was made to learn multiplication tables by rote, all the way to 16×16. A good thing. By the time I entered my teens, I knew forty or fifty poems “by heart”. Also a good thing. There is something soul-energising about being able to remember not just stanzas but entire poems decades later. Later on, it became common practice for us to be quoting the Bard at will, again something that filled me with joy.

I wasn’t averse to learning things by rote. But they had to be worth learning. Memorising page after page of numbers did not fall into that category. If someone wanted to memorise pi to 100o digits that was fine with me. But that should be an act of will, a choice.

I was lazy enough to memorise the Periodic Table so that I wouldn’t have to memorise oodles and oodles of equations. Instead, I could “guess” the right equation using Mendeleev’s fabulous framing. There was method in my laziness.

All I wanted to do was to avoid the tendency to “commit to memory and vomit to paper”, which to me was a complete waste of time and energy.

So in general, I felt, and continue to feel, that outsourcing mundane repetitive tasks to computers is a good thing — as long as we were taught the fundamentals, a core level of numeracy and literacy. But there are risks to any form of outsourcing, in terms of the core skill dying off, and even in terms of unintended consequences.

Thinking about LSD

No, not lysergic acid diethylamide. The other LSD. Labour-saving devices. We’ve been on that drug for nigh on a hundred years now. Part of the hallmark of “civilisation” has been our tendency to build machines that do the work of many men; Brynjolfsson and McAfee make this point very eloquently when talking about man harnessing steam. So we drive everywhere. And we push buttons to wash things and to dry things, to chop things and to blend things, to cook them, to freeze them. All at the push of a button.

All this button-pushing has come at a cost.

Sitting is the new smoking.

We spend money “saving labour”. And then we spend money labouring on machines in strange places called gymnasia. [To be precise, we spend money joining such places, and occasionally even going there. But only occasionally].

Our sedentary lifestyles have consequences, in terms of our health and fitness. And we’re learning about those consequences, and doing something about them. Which made me think. Hmmm. The outsourcing of physical labour to machines has had mixed results. Mostly good, but some bad; we miss the exercise implied in the labour we saved. Is there something similar awaiting us when it comes to mental labour?

LSD for the mind

No, this isn’t my Timothy Leary moment. I’m talking about devices that save us mental labour. Not all the mental labour we save should be saved. I met Sugata Mitra at TED Global, I think it was in 2009. Great guy. One of the things he said to me has always stuck with me. A teacher who can be replaced by a computer should be replaced by a computer. When I’ve repeated that assertion the reactions have sometimes been less than positive, so let me explain what I believe he meant. Mitra was saying that a teacher has to do more than just “give you answers”.

When I was fourteen years old, I knew maybe 100 phone numbers by heart. I can recall many of them forty-two years later. The children of today tend to recall less than five telephone numbers. And their children may not need to recall any. Is this a bad thing? No. But this is only true if they retain basic numeracy; in this context, if you haven’t done so already, do read the books on innumeracy by John Allen Paulos. They’re wonderful.

Thinking about the Second Machine Age

As machines get smarter (they will) and as the class of tasks they can do well grows in size (it will), we will continue to wrestle with questions about the skills we should retain and the skills we should outsource to machines with abandon. Are we on the verge of entering an age where we can’t distinguish between poetry written by a human and that written by a machine? Or art? Or music? Perhaps we are. But that’s when the Kasparov comment on his match with Topalov comes into play: Since we both had equal access to the same database, the advantage came down to creating a new idea at some point.

The skills we need to protect, to develop, to sharpen and hone, they’re the skills we use to create new ideas. Skills that are built on strong foundations of literacy and numeracy; skills that call on our ability to think critically, to articulate and argue our thoughts, to do all this using scientific methods.

The first great outsourcing that happened was probably the one that people like Richard Wrangham have made famous: man’s taming of fire, the invention of cooking, when we built ourselves external stomachs and outsourced some of our digestion. That’s what probably led to our brains getting bigger and our gastric tracts getting smaller, what people like Leslie Aiello referred to as the Expensive Tissue Hypothesis.

The last great outsourcing that happened was the Industrial Revolution, with many benefits, and a few not-so-nice consequences.

We’re on the verge of the next one. One where we pass on some of our thinking jobs to machines. With many potential benefits, and a few not-so-nice consequences.

Things get messy in a digital world. There are people who think that “data” gets moved around like Fedex parcels, and we’re on the verge of decades of law built to reflect those views. We’re probably going to enter a world where robots need visas. Unless you’re a citizen robot, of course. In which case you’ll pay taxes like any other good citizen. So we’ll have robots that live in tax havens and commute electronically. [I know. We do. Already]. Another fine mess.

That’s what the book by Brynjolfsson and McAfee helped frame better for all of us. Which means I’m going to be spending time here sharing my thoughts on all this with you, hoping to learn something from you, hoping to pass on that learning to others. So keep the comments and references and arguments coming please.

5 thoughts on “But they are useless. They can only give you answers”

  1. At PARC from a panel who had helped invent the PC we heard about a director at HP so thunderstruck by Apple he pitched HP’s board to supply LSD to engineers to get the creatives going (LSD apparently legal till Vietnam). Though the priceless lesson from Mr Bhowmick, it’s not the drugs, or recall, it’s the need to ask Socratic questions we can learn from. Still memorization shows motivation?

  2. Thank you for the excellent post. The scifi writers concentrate on sentient computers but your post has me wondering about robotic humans. I was a high school teacher for 10 yrs and for the last 15 yrs have worked at the intersection of technology/data and the social sector. It’s a been a strange ride and the one truth I have uncovered is that analysis and insight are… hard. Which brings me to a quotation that has always stuck with me:

    “I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society, but the people themselves: and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their controul with a wholsome discretion, the remedy is, not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education…” –Thomas Jefferson to William C. Jarvis, 1820. ME 15:278

  3. Thanks JP – great post as always.

    By the way, you have probably seen this but came up in my feed today and struck a chord with this post. It is Stephen Wolfram providing an introduction to his Wolfram Language. Pretty mind blowing stuff.

Let me know what you think

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