Thursday, April 24, 2008

Wired Magazine: Two Versions Of The Same Prediction

I wrote this for Wired in 1995:

It's argued that computers will grow more and more autonomous, eventually surpassing human intelligence. Eventually, some say, these machines will realize we're a liability and leave us behind. If you think this sounds like a '50s B-movie, don't worry: it's not going to happen. If anything, humans and computers will grow together, becoming increasingly difficult to separate.

Computers are stuck in an intimate symbiosis with human beings because we're the dominant factor in their reproduction. Computers may evolve, but their evolution isn't shaped by natural selection; it's shaped by the human computer market. So, to ask what computers will become is to ask what we want from them.

Look at how people use artificial intelligence today. The emergence of expert systems, which spurred people to envision great electronic brains running international corporations, instead produced pattern-recognition software that enables people in large companies to make better decisions.

Instead of replacing us, computers will become a secondary, symbiotic species, enhancing our lives in specialized but powerful ways. In the process, they will transform what it means to be human.

Gary Wolf wrote this for Wired 13 years later:

SuperMemo is based on the insight that there is an ideal moment to practice what you've learned. Practice too soon and you waste your time. Practice too late and you've forgotten the material and have to relearn it. The right time to practice is just at the moment you're about to forget. Unfortunately, this moment is different for every person and each bit of information. Imagine a pile of thousands of flash cards. Somewhere in this pile are the ones you should be practicing right now. Which are they?

Fortunately, human forgetting follows a pattern. We forget exponentially. A graph of our likelihood of getting the correct answer on a quiz sweeps quickly downward over time and then levels off. This pattern has long been known to cognitive psychology, but it has been difficult to put to practical use. It's too complex for us to employ with our naked brains.

Twenty years ago, Wozniak realized that computers could easily calculate the moment of forgetting if he could discover the right algorithm. SuperMemo is the result of his research. It predicts the future state of a person's memory and schedules information reviews at the optimal time. The effect is striking. Users can seal huge quantities of vocabulary into their brains. But for Wozniak, 46, helping people learn a foreign language fast is just the tiniest part of his goal. As we plan the days, weeks, even years of our lives, he would have us rely not merely on our traditional sources of self-knowledge - introspection, intuition, and conscious thought - but also on something new: predictions about ourselves encoded in machines.

Given the chance to observe our behaviors, computers can run simulations, modeling different versions of our path through the world. By tuning these models for top performance, computers will give us rules to live by. They will be able to tell us when to wake, sleep, learn, and exercise; they will cue us to remember what we've read, help us track whom we've met, and remind us of our goals. Computers, in Wozniak's scheme, will increase our intellectual capacity and enhance our rational self-control.