Thinking with computers (computation or cognition)

I have just finished reading a trio of books that have all had me thinking about how we will think and work alongside digital tools. The first up was Garry Kasparov’s book Deep Thinking – Where Machine Intelligence Ends and Human Creativity Begins. Kasparov has been an advocate of the ‘centaur’ approach to humans and computers, where working together creates a stronger hybrid creature. So it has proved with chess where the a human and a computer working together form the strongest team. Kasparov has some interesting insights about how computers think – arguing that they don’t think in the same way that humans do. There is a fantastic article here by science fiction writer Bruce Sterling which makes a strong case for the difference between artificial intelligence and human thinking. Computation and cognition are two totally different things, he argues: “Cognition is about stuff like seeing, manoeuvering, having wants, desires. Your cat has cognition. [But] cats cannot multiply 17 times five. They have got their own umwelt (environment). But they are mammalian, you are a mammalian. They are actually a class that includes you. You are much more like your house cat than you are ever going to be like Siri.”

Then I am just finishing Smarter than you Think by Clive Thompson which was a relatively upbeat look at how technology is changing us and how we relate to it. The book is full of positive case studies about how technology is being used to push the boundaries of knowledge and, at its best, solve complex human problems. There is a great example of Tahir Supplies in Egypt. After military dictator Hosni Mubarak was forced to flee, fighting broke out between activists and the military. The activists set up makeshift tent hospitals to treat the wounded but it was difficult to co-ordinate the supply of medical supplies and equipment to the tents. An Egyptian sitting in Dubai could see this and started a twitter account to report on which tent hospitals needed supplies. People on the ground would text, tweet and message him about where supplies were needed and he would tweet it out. This meant that doctors and those with supplies knew where to go.

This is a typical example in the book – it’s positive about the use of technology and also envisages a future where we are even more closely entwined with digital tools.

Finally, I have just finished Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World but Cal Newport. Strictly thinking it’s not about technology, but I like it because, as the title says, it’s about how to get serious work done. He has some good insights into thinking – he talks about the concept of ‘looping’ where you think the same things because it’s easy and comfortable, but you don’t challenge yourself to break the loop and think further, or ask yourself ‘so what’s the next step?’ Newport says you need to get off social media and other digital distractions if you want to get serious work done.

Underlying all three is the theme of how do we use technology for good. I like Thompson’s book because in some of the examples there is significant nuance in how people who are exploring at the edge of technology are using that technology. These early adopters understand that there are rules, rules that humans apply so that technology doesn’t run amok.

I think one rule that we should consider is that digital tools don’t necessarily equate to efficiency, even though we tend to think that they make our lives easier, sometimes digital technology just takes us in a direction that we don’t necessarily want to go in, but it takes us there faster. Think about email, for example, such an efficient method of communication, but who really wants to spend hours each day responding to email. (Cal Newport is a passionate advocate of batching email and I am trying to take on his suggestion here).

I think of this with books, for example. I like to read and I use the Kindle App on my phone. One of the reasons that I have been reading so much lately is that I decided this year that instead of turning to a news site when I wanted a break from work/distraction, I would read a chapter of a book. So far, so good – I have been reading more. But there’s no doubt that because I am using my phone to read it is easy to get distracted and look at the internet – particularly when the book gets hard. For that reason I am toying with getting a Kindle for books, particularly in the evening when I don’t want to get distracted by the phone.  The phone is more efficient because all my apps are on it, but that very fact is taking me down a road I am not sure that I want to go.