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THINKING MACHINES AND ENNUI

RICHARD E. NISBETT

Psychologist; Theodore M. Newcomb Distinguished University Professor, University of Michigan; author, Mindware: Tools for Smart Thinking

The first time I had occasion to think about what thinking machines might do to human existence was at a talk decades ago by a computer scientist at a Yale Psychology Department colloquium. The talk’s topic was “What will it mean to humans’ conception of themselves, and to their well-being, if computers are ever able to do everything better than humans can do—beat the greatest chess player, compose better symphonies than humans?”

“I want to make two things clear at the outset,” the speaker said. “First, I don’t know whether machines will ever be able to do those things. Second, I’m the only person in the room with the right to an opinion about that question.” The latter statement was met with gasps and nervous laughter.

Decades later, it’s no longer a matter of opinion that computers can do many of the astonishing things the speaker mentioned. And I’m worried that the answer to his question about what this will mean to us is that we’ll feel utterly sidelined and demoralized by machines. I was sorry that Deep Blue beat Garry Kasparov at chess. I was momentarily depressed when Watson, its successor, defeated both its human Jeopardy! competitors. And of course we know that machines can already compose works that beat the socks off John Cage for interest and listenability!

We do have to worry about a devastating morale problem, when any work we might do can be done better by machines. What does it mean to airplane pilots that a machine can do their job better than they can? How long will it be before that occupation, like hundreds of others already, is made obsolete by machines? What will it mean to accountants, financial planners, and lawyers when machines can carry out, at the very least, nearly all of their bread-and-butter tasks more effectively and infinitely faster than they can? To physicians, physicists, and psychotherapists?

What will it mean when there’s simply no meaningful work for any of us to do? When unsupervised machines plant and harvest crops? When machines can design better machines than any human could even think of? Or be a more entertaining conversationalist than even the cleverest of your friends?

Steve Jobs told us that it wasn’t the customers’ job to know what they want. Computers may be able to boast that it’s not the job of humans to know what they want.

Like you, I love to read, listen to music, see movies and plays, experience nature. But I also love to work—to feel that what I do is fascinating, at least to me, and might possibly improve the lives of others. What would it mean to people like you and me if our work were simply pointless and there were only the other enjoyable things to do?

We already know what machine-induced obsolescence has meant to some of the world’s peoples. It’s no longer necessary for anyone to make their own bows and arrows and hunt animals, for any purpose other than recreation. Or to plant, cultivate, and harvest corn and beans. Some cultures built around such activities have collapsed and lost their meaning to the people who were shaped by them. Think, for example, of Southwestern Indian tribes, or rural whites in South Dakota, Alabama, New Mexico, with their ennui, lassitude, and drug addiction. We have to wonder whether the world’s people can face with equanimity the possibility of there being nothing to do other than to entertain themselves.

Which isn’t to say that cultures couldn’t evolve in some way as to make the absence of work acceptable, even highly satisfying. There are cultures in which there has been little to do in the way of work for eons, and people seem to have gotten along just fine. In some South Pacific cultures, people could get by with little other than waiting for a coconut to drop or wading into a lagoon to catch a fish. In some West African cultures, men didn’t do anything you’d be likely to classify as work except for a couple of weeks a year, when they were essential for the planting of crops. And then there were the idle rich of, say, early twentieth-century England, with their endless rounds of card playing, the putting on of different costumes for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and serial infidelities with really rather attractive people. Judging from PBS fare, that was pretty enjoyable.

So maybe the most optimistic possibility is that we’re headed toward evolving cultures that will enable us to enjoy perpetual entertainment with no meaningful, productive work to do. However repellent that may seem to us, we have to imagine—hope, even—that it may seem a delightful existence to our great-great-grandchildren, who will pity us for our cramped and boring lives. Some would say the vanguard is already here: Portland, Oregon, has been described as the place where young people go to retire.

 
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