Smarter than you think: How technology is changing our minds for the better (Clive Thompson)

Thompson, C. (2013). Smarter than you think: How technology is changing our minds for the better. New York: The Penguin Press.

It is easy to find books proclaiming that the end of the world is herre: machines will take over. In this engaging and provocative book, Clive Thompson argues just the opposite. Yes, machines are getting smarter and more powerful all the time. But they enable us. They add to our creativity.

Chess-playing machines now dominate, right? After all, the best machines can beat the best human players, right?  Well, true, but not as simply as you might think. The best chess team in the world (note the word "team") is composed of people and computers. The best mixed team can beat the best human or the best computer. And guess what? The best team does not have to have the best players or the best computers in it: it simply has to have the best collaborators.

Human players have gotten much stronger by using computers, and when they can use them in a match, they can beat unaided humans and unaided computers.

I'm a fan of this argument. After all, in my book, Things that make us smart, I argued that is is precisely things -- artifacts -- human built tools and machines -- that make us, the combination of us and our artifacts, smart. The unaided mind is pretty limited. Add writing and pow: we create mathematics, art, music, books. And machines that make us even smarter.

Self-driving cars? Bring them on: I have better things to do with my mind than stare up the rear ends of the cars in front of me on the crowded streets.

Are there downsides? Yes. The Luddites, for example, were not against technology: they were fearful of losing their jobs to technology. Their fears were correct. Many will be disadvantaged by new developments. Many will lose jobs and be unable to get new ones, because the new skills required will be so different from the old ones that simple retraining wil not do.  Transitions are very painful  Our society does a bad job of aiding people during transition periods. This is an important issue we must face, but it is not helped by overdone tales of gloom and despair: leave those to the science fiction writers.

But we will not reach the deadly decay of humankind predicted by some. Instead, we will be able to improve our skills, our creativity, and our accomplishments.

Thompson ends his book by reflecting upon IBM's success with powerful computers: Chess, jeopardy, and now being deployed for numerous domains (manufacturing, medicine, science).

"How should you respond when you get powerful new tools for finding Answers?" asks Thompson.

"Think of harder questions," he responds.

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