Computers Can Store Information, Humans Need To Analyze It

The current issue of Wired poses some interesting questions about the age-old struggle of man versus machine. In this case, it is the Internet and algorithms versus human spark and spontaneity when it comes to managing the data deluge.

The first headline grabber was “The Rise of the Robot Reporter,” about how artificial intelligence software has taken over the role of financial and even iconic sports journalists by way of a computer-generated story program created by Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism.

The Narrative Science writing engine allows users to customize the tone of any story -- “from breathless financial reporter to dry analyst,” Wired reports. So readers might not recognize --or care about -- the absence of  human spontaneity and reason. Does that matter?

Such specialized data management will drive next stage innovation in social media and other forms of interactivity. But can the richness of human experience, curiosity and invention be replaced by sophisticated tech engines and algorithms? Would Apple’s half trillion dollars in value and pervasive, influential product ecosystem have been possible without the late Steve Jobs?

Perusing other entries in the May “fortune teller” issue of the issue gave me hope.

How to Spot the Future” offers seven rules for identifying the trends, technologies and ideas that will change the world. They are rooted in the human mind and spirit, even if they involve complex sorting and coding of massive data, problem-solving computer programs and a workable structure.

These change agents are elixirs of information inundation. The cross-pollination of threads from disparate disciplines breeds evolution and revolution. (Detroit’s car industry has been resurrected by the cross-pollination of personal electronics and automobiles.) Moore’s Law of cheaper, smaller, faster exponential innovation has reached beyond chips to become universal in the information age.

Liberated thinkers turn “static into flow and bring motion to obstruction” when they recognize and change artificial scarcity. The willingness to take early risks (Wired calls it “audacity”), enables “openness” and free-flowing collaboration, and encourages “deeper design” that converts complex data into a more accessible, understandable utility.  

Joi Ito, director of the MIT Media Lab, asserts that serendipity and an agile response to unexpected opportunity are human elements critical for success. Data facilitates; humans lead. But as devices and software are perfected, do they threaten to replace their human creators?

Arnab Gupta, founding CEO of Opera Solutions, maintains it is up to humans to interpret and process data as his and other companies seek to make data more accessible and comprehensible, especially to nontechies. Even the most advanced devices and software are “ultimately limited,” he said at a recent Structure: Data conference. Still, everyone needs to accept more responsibility for being discriminating, inquisitive and constructive in mining and using data in their everyday lives.

An interview with Marc Andreessen in the same issue of Wired underscores the importance of human discovery, creative discretion and perspective, which together provide a unique catalyst and filter for what is and can be. In a world overrun by real-time data, even when sifted and analyzed by the best algorithms and software programs, we lack insight without applying our own subjective, strategic sieve. The most successful companies rely on both.

If this all sounds too lofty, consider that almost everything about our daily personal or professional lives is impacted by artificial intelligence that manages the flood of data we’re drowning in and struggling to constructively use. But maybe we are not trying hard enough.

Andreessen was asked about creative destruction and whether computer devices and software will become so smart in the information age that they replace workers who once defined agriculture and industrial-based societies. “Then what?” the reporter asked. “I’ll tell you: The then what is whatever we [humans] invent next,” Andreessen answered, pointing to education, financial services, health care and government as the next categories ripe for dramatic tech-induced change.

I guess that means we’re still in control.

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