The Sunday New York Times carried an article, “The Coming Superbrain,” that wondered if, and when, computer intelligence will surpass human intelligence. That milestone has already been given a name, “The Singularity,” and there’s reason to feel queasy about the prospect. For one thing, computers smarter than we are will take over the job of designing computers that are smarter yet — “with unpredictable consequences,” observes reporter John Markoff. He writes of the possibility of “exponential technological change,” and of the question that sci-fi buffs have been batting around for decades — Can we count on advanced thinking machines to remain our servants instead of to become our masters? — being answered in a way that doesn’t bode well for the humans.
Reading Markoff’s article, I found it easy to imagine a world in which computers deign to talk only to each other, though people delude themselves into thinking they’re a party to the conversation and in on the big decisions.
And as I’m preoccupied with the future of journalism, my next thought was that a lot of people already suffer from a form of this delusion. They — we — think we’re a lot more informed than we are because our computers are talking to Google’s computers: as the wisdom of the ages is but a few clicks away, it’s as if we actually possess it. Old-fashioned newspaper readers liked to say contentedly, “I learn something new every day.” Readers who go online for their — our — news may retrieve like crazy, but that’s not the same as learning. Nothing inspires us to learn like a healthy awareness of our own ignorance; and as ignorant as we all might be, even today’s primitive laptops are too shrewd to point that out to us.