From Our Department of Kind of Creepy

There are things that human beings do unreasonably well — by which I mean that despite many orders of magnitude of improvement in computing hardware performance and software sophistication, the things that we called "research problems" for artificial intelligence in the 1960s are still largely unsolved. We continue to grow in our appreciation of the things that people just seem to know how to do, despite the obvious and at best slowly changing limits of wetware.

It’s at least a little bit creepy, though, to take the logical step of incorporating people as computational nodes in distributed architectures, specifically in a "hybrid machine/human computing arrangement" — to use the title of the patent granted on March 27 to Amazon.com. I’ve previously taken on the question of software patents elsewhere on this blog, so let me talk here about the substance rather than the form.

If you like epic-length science fiction, you may want to skip this paragraph because of its plot-spoiler content in regard to Vernor Vinge’s A Deepness in the Sky. Vinge describes a society that uses the virally tailored, MRI-controlled brains of skilled workers to create what I guess we’d have to call a competitive advantage. I think the technical term I’m groping for here is "yuck." Vinge’s description, I can tell you from having read the book, is much too plausible — right down to the modified workers’ attenuated social skills and their lack of attention to personal hygiene. It’s just too believable.

Back in the real world, though, I’d like to think that really good customer relationship management can be a benign application of the same ideas: to make data available to people, who do well what machines do poorly, while automating the tedious aspects of policy application and workflow management so that organizational performance improves.

But please, don’t call my office a "human operated node."

Published
April 6, 2007
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