Digital Minefield

Why The Machines Are Winning

Archive for the tag “Science”

Oh, The Humanities!

In 1959, British scientist and novelist C. P. Snow gave a lecture titled “The Two Cultures.” He said British education was split into Science and the Humanities—and that the latter saw itself as superior.

His critique claimed the essentials of the Humanities were the central pillar of British education, and that most educated Brits thought the essentials of Science as little more than incidental.

The lecture became a widely read book, then a widely discussed controversy, and even another follow-up book. In less than sixty years, it is not only forgotten but the tables have completely turned.

Today not only is Science king, very few people (even outside of Science or Technology) see any value whatsoever in the Humanities. As I said in my post of July 20, 2015, “The nerds have won.”

However, having everything your own way is rarely the path to victory. I could just mention the name Midas, or point to the endless stories and fables meant to teach us a little wisdom.

I could give endless examples of how our technology could be improved by adding a human element. There are many related to programming in this blog. However, the big picture are the robots that will be built on the assumptions of artificial intelligence.

The intelligence sought by AI is abstract. AI scientists don’t see the distinct value of human intelligence. They think that somehow a machine can make decisions or solve problems without a concept of self, without consciousness—without empathy for humans.

Empathy is exactly what our current technology lacks. It can be learned directly from experience or indirectly from education. But it can only be learned, directly or indirectly, from humans.

Intelligence without empathy is merely data. How many times have you heard the phrase “thinking outside the box”? Einstein said, “The true sign of intelligence is not knowledge but imagination.” Using imagination is box-free thinking.

Wikipedia defines “[I]ntelligence … [as] logic, abstract thought, understanding, self-awareness, communication, learning, emotional knowledge, memory, planning, creativity and problem solving.” Yet, without imagination, all of these are useless.

Imagining how humans will respond is necessary for human-friendly technology. If we can apply our humanity, we can empathize how people will feel using a technological product or device. We can, if our science is balanced by our humanity.


More Than Engineering

What do great engineering feats have in common with writing software? Let’s look at one of the biggest (many say the greatest engineering achievement of all time): Going to the moon.

Engineering is often called a by-the-book discipline. The engineering books of the day couldn’t get us to the moon; there were far too many significant unknowns. NASA wrote the book as it went along.

There are two ways of handling unknowns. Science, with experimentation, testing, and verification, is one. Going to the moon required massive scientific investigation. No one knew the effects of prolonged weightlessness. (That’s what we call it, but it’s really falling—all the time, non-stop, 24/7.)

The other approach to unknowns requires human ingenuity and intuition. That’s why NASA wanted experienced pilots. As he approached the moon’s surface, Neil Armstrong was running out of fuel as numerous alarms sounded. He made the right choices.

Solving this second class of unknowns is sometimes called a Black Art. If its practitioners succeed more often than not, you can’t call it guesswork. Neil Armstrong was a highly experienced test pilot and he’d faced the unknown many times before.

In the 80s, the powers that be decided programming should become Software Engineering. Unfortunately, it didn’t connect to other engineering disciplines. At the college level, it was more likely found under Computer Science.

So, what is programming? Is it science? Engineering? Or a practical art? Bismark said, “Politics is the art of the possible.” I say, programming is the art of the practical. However, the practical arts don’t have the academic standing of science or engineering.

All engineering is based on scientific principles. All practical arts are based on engineering principles. But the final product comes from the hand of the practitioner, not the engineer or the scientist.

To design a house, an architect obeys the laws of physics, follows engineering guidelines, and uses 3-D computer modeling to feel what it’s like to walk through it. Programmers exercise the software to feel what users will feel.

The NASA astronauts provided that feedback. They took the work of the engineers and the scientists and refined it into workable systems. This is where software is weakest today. It’s time to move beyond Software Engineering.

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