Just finished reading a nice piece in the Atlantic by science writer Brian Christian, who took part in the 2009 Loebner Prize. It’s built around a question first posited by mathematician Alan Turning – the Turing Test – posed 60 years ago: Can a computer fool a person via a text conversation that it’s human?
Brian, who throws himself into the competition determined to show how human he is to the judges, dissects the meaning of humanity, at least as it relates to conversation. And he succeeds, winning the award for Most Human Human – meaning, which person most convinces the judges he’s human. (There’s also an award for Most Human Computer.)
More broadly, he riffs on the notion of what computer intelligence is, and how it differs from the human variety, and concludes that one of humanity’s great strength is its ability to adapt and innovate to its circumstances.
Who would have imagined that the computer’s earliest achievements would be in the domain of logical analysis, a capacity once held to be what made us most different from everything else on the planet? That it could fly a plane and guide a missile before it could ride a bike? That could create plausible preludes in the style of Bach before it could make plausible small talk? That it translate before it could paraphrase? That it could spin half-discernable essays on postmodern theory before it could be shown a chair and say, as most toddlers can, “chair”?
As computers have mastered rarefied domains once thought to be uniquely human, they simultaneously have failed to master the ground-floor basics of the human experience – spatial orientation, object recognition, natural language, adaptive goal-setting – and in so doing, have shown us how impressive, computationally and otherwise, such minute-to-minute fundamentals truly are.
And so too, in computational journalism, we need to recognize the strengths and weakness of machine and human intelligence, and not hope for sudden breakthroughs in technology and the semantic engines that will clearly understand what we’re trying to accomplish.
It makes more sense that we stay on track with the technology we have, and tap the best – and cheapest – computer available: The human mind. Which is part of the premise of structured journalism – adapt the journalists to the product, not the other way around, and not count on any holy grails in the form of technological promises.
Technology will play a big part in journalism’s future. But we shouldn’t let it determine the pace we move, or what we do.