Digital Minefield

Why The Machines Are Winning

Is This Smart?

Today I asked a very smart piece of software, a very (I thought) simple question: how many bicycles are there in the world? The software was Wolfram Alpha (available free at I quote the answer: “Wolfram|Alpha doesn’t understand your query[.]” Really? Is this truly the sad state of the art of artificial intelligence?

Slightly incredulous, I rephrased the question: In the world, how many bicycles are there? And I got this choice: Olympic medals, world cycling, and number of medals. Really? But before I close the lid and get out the nails, I should explain why I was there and why I was asking.

I went to Wolfram|Alpha (as it calls itself) to see if its Kindle app was worth $3.99. I also went out of curiosity, since it had been on my horizon for a few years. Claimed to be better (!) than search engines, it is “a knowledge base of curated, structured data.” —Wikipedia

I was also curious to see the latest from the special mind of Stephan Wolfram, a former wunderkind (Ph.D. from CalTech at 20). A few years ago, I had fumbled through all 1192 pages of his book, A New Kind of Science. (I won’t try to explain it.)

So much for why I was there. The reason I was asking was because I was sure there were more bicycles than cars (in the world). Any search engine will tell you there are about twice as many bicycles than cars (and bicycles out produce cars by 5 to 2).

I was also asking as a follow-up to last week’s post about haves and have-nots. How’s this for ubiquity: there is at least one transistor radio for every person on the planet. Cell phones come close, with about six billion (but those figures are probably inflated). If you doubt the numbers, all you need to know is that China is the foremost producer of transistor radios and bicycles.

Like the radio, initially the phone was a shared device. Like today’s transistor radio, today’s phone might be shared but it’s clearly designed to be a personal device—your contacts, your apps, your text messages, etc. Even more personal is the smart phone; many people say it’s their life. But there are only a billion of them. The haves, as they have always been, are in the minority. The have-nots, in poor societies, still listen to transistor radios. Few have individual cell phones, never mind smart phones.


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