It’s artificial, all right, but let’s not call it ‘intelligence’

not smart (2)

As y’all know, I worry a good bit about what the internet is doing to us. But I don’t worry about “artificial intelligence” taking over the planet in some deliberate, organized way like in “The Matrix.”

That’s because I don’t see it as intelligent, either in a bad way or a good way. Oh, it’s capable of some impressive tricks. Some of them, like Google Maps, I think are pretty wonderful. But intelligent? Nope. I worry about the things it does that are the opposite of intelligent. And I worry about how it’s making us dramatically less intelligent. That’s what all those “Rabbit Hole” posts are about.

And on the good, useful side of intelligence, I’m never going to trust it to operate any car that I or people I love are riding in — or driving next to. Yep, it can react more quickly and often more logically than a human to many situations. But it is so very, very far from being able to see and understand everything we do.

My email today provided two examples that brought all this to mind for me, yet again.

First… I recently wanted to re-read Post Captain, the second book in the Aubrey-Maturin series, for the first time in years. But I had lost my copy of it. I figured if I bought another, I might lose that, too. So I bought access to a Kindle version, which I can read on my iPad’s Kindle app.

And now, using the “brilliant” capabilities of Amazon’s recommendation code, it sends me invitations to read some other books in the series, having no clue that all of those are sitting, well-thumbed, on my bookshelves.

OK, you say, that seems reasonable. A clerk in a bookshop could make the same mistake. Seeing me buying Post Captain, he might reasonably say, “Hey, if that interests you, have you read the other 20 books in the series?” And I wouldn’t think he was stupid at all.

But that clerk isn’t the vaunted, imperial technology of Amazon, which supposedly has instantaneous access to everything about me that’s on the Web, and possesses an uncanny ability to process all that information and act effectively upon it, even to the point of planting (with my help!) two spies — my Echo devices — to listen to everything I ever say in the privacy of my home.

Which should not make it hard for it to know that I am a compulsive blogger — something not hidden at all, since the blog bears my name — who bores the ever-loving crapola out of all my readers by mentioning my Aubrey-Maturin mania over and over and over again, for years on end.

No, again, I’m not saying a human couldn’t make the mistake. But if a human being was in touch with all that information, and was able to process it constantly with superhuman speed, he wouldn’t make the mistake of thinking I haven’t read HMS Surprise. (The Stasi wouldn’t have made that mistake in even a casual effort to manipulate me, and East Germany ceased to exist well before the rise of artificial you-know-what.) So he would just suggest something else.

No, Amazon isn’t stupid for doing this. It’s just utterly failing to impress me with its supposedly amazing intelligence.

OK, I sense I’m losing you on that one. The example doesn’t come across as sufficiently stupid to you, even after I explain why it drew a snort of contempt from me.

So here’s another one. My Ancestry app has recently stopped defaulting to my tree when I open it. I have to tell it I want to open the tree after it has shown me various offers of really cool stuff that’s supposed to make me super-impressed at what Ancestry has to offer me.

And the one it keeps offering first is something it calls “your Photoline.” And there’s one of my great-great grandfathers, along with his son my great-grandfather, my Dad, and me.

I infer that Ancestry expects me to react like this:

Wow! That’s me! And there’s my Dad when he was young! I wonder who those other, old-timey guys are! Am I related to them? Can Ancestry really tell me amazing things like that? Where did it find all these pictures?

And so forth.

But here’s the thing: Ancestry has these pictures because I put them on my tree. Every single one of them. I not only scanned them, but I recognize the way I cropped them in Photoshop. I remember wondering whether I should remove that streak across the picture of me, and deciding to leave it because the streak is part of the story of the picture.

(That’s a mug someone at The Jackson Sun shot in the newsroom’s studio in 1985 to go with a story for the business page about the fact that I, the Sun‘s news editor, was leaving to become news editor of the Wichita paper. The streak is there because the Sun had recently started trying to save photographers’ time by shooting such routine mug shots with a Polaroid camera. They’re quicker, but often they leave streaks like that — which I suppose makes them sort of like “artificial intelligence.” I’ve always liked the picture anyway, including the cocky grin I had, because I didn’t know yet what an awful place to work the Wichita paper would be.)

There’s some human stupidity here, too. A human thought this would be a great way to pull people into Ancestry, and wrote (or caused to be written) the code that would automatically skim the database for such pictures, and match them up. And it might have impressed someone utterly clueless, like those celebrity guests on that PBS show who are so amazed to learn who their grandparents were.

But why doesn’t this brilliant code know where it got the pictures, which was from me, the guy it’s trying to impress? It doesn’t seem like that would take many ones and zeroes at all. It seems like the one thing it ought to know the most easily. Even a pretty dumb human would know that.

Anyway, I’m not worried about this kind of intelligence taking over. Oh, it can perhaps destroy society, by destroying our ability to think clearly. But it can’t run the place… or drive a car to my satisfaction, either…


Oh, and don’t even get me started on referring to a single person as “them.” Of course, plenty of human do that, unfortunately…

5 thoughts on “It’s artificial, all right, but let’s not call it ‘intelligence’

  1. Scout

    I do love Ancestry, but I agree their promotions are a bit daft sometimes. I’m pretty sure that even if you hadn’t scanned and entered those photos yourself, it still wouldn’t know they were your people unless YOU had attached them to your tree – even if someone else uploaded them initially. It still should not be news to you, since you built the tree. It’s just a different way to present the same info. The Story scout thing seems similar. It’s telling you stuff it knows only because you told it in the first place, but just in a slightly different format. Maybe some people need that.

    But Thrulines is actually pretty cool – it will connect you to pictures and info that are not yours that you might not have otherwise found (at least not as quickly, in my case). For some reasons, I never see any promotions for it though.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Well, if Thrulines are that cool, then maybe Ancestry should write its promotional algorithm to choose pictures from THAT feature to show me, so they will be showing me something I haven’t seen before.

      By the way, my irritation in this instance is partly due to the pictures thing already being a sore spot. The last few months, Ancestry has given me lots and lots of “hints” that are pictures those people obviously got from my tree.

      I post a lot of pictures. In fact, much of the time I spend on my tree is spent digitizing images and editing them to place on the tree. Ancestry says I’ve added more than 4,000 of them. And other people grab them, and I’m happy to share with them. But please don’t call my attention to it over and over and over again this way. I don’t mind clicking “ignore” a few times, but when it gets to a few HUNDRED times…

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        And yes, Ancestry can do some wonderful things. For instance, for years I had wanted to see a picture of my great-grandmother, Rebecca Jane Rabbitt, who married Alfred Crittenton Warthen. But she died right after the birth of her sixth child, when she was only 35 years old. A.C. got married twice more over the next 39 years. Somehow in all that, no one had passed on a picture of her in a way that I would find it.

        But then, one day not long ago, some distant cousin descended from one of her siblings (I think — I haven’t really sorted it out, from glancing at that tree) posted her picture, and Ancestry showed it to me, and I added it to my tree.

        That was pretty special. I guess it makes up for all the uncounted times it has shown me images that I added to the database itself…

  2. Brad Warthen Post author

    Oh, I should have included this Tweet from several days ago, which was sort of a preview of this post:

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      I later added this thought:

      A day or so after that, I noticed that iTunes was offering to sell me “Office Space” for only $4.99. I jumped at the chance. And watched the whole thing yet again. And it was awesome, yet again.

      I think I already had it somewhere around the house on DVD. But I didn’t even bother to look to see. Having it just sitting there on my Apple TV is just so much more convenient than a disc…


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