• David C. Donald

The “smartest guy in the room” is now a machine; quo vadis homo sapiens?


As the saying goes, “the future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed.” Just as the American folk hero John Henry “was a steel-driving man” who was tragically beaten by heartless construction machinery, Fredrick Taylor was a “rationalizing man” whose progeny are being replaced by computers. Industry, its consultants, academics and even lawyers and physicians have driven at breakneck speed toward quantification – the translation of human activity into a language that computers not only understand, but speak much better than do humans. This development is at least as marvelous and tragic as the story of John Henry.

At some point toward the end of the 20th century we became fascinated with the value of the “smartest guy in the room” to indicate skill and value. While the likes of the cerebral Sherlock Holmes had been around since the 19th century victory of logic and science over tradition and belief, late 20th century culture took the attractions of Mr Spock, Rain Man, Adrian Monk or Sheldon Cooper to a new level, as quantitative sciences conquered industry and academia. Emotional intelligence was out, and the socially agnostic geek was in. Quickly cracking a tough calculation with "limitless" intelligence was not only more respected than ethical wisdom, it also became infinitely more profitable.

Although in the early 2000s, the “smartest guy in the room” epithet was attached to the colossal failure of Enron, the culture embracing quick, glib and precise thinking did not lose any steam until 2008, if then. While the fuzzy abstractions like sound judgement fell out of fashion, hard calculations came in. Nothing can prove requisite “smartness” like a mastery of hard mathematics applied to making money. A time of “quants” had arrived, and this was briefly human. As more data became available quantification of strategies took off everywhere, from manufacturing and investing to constitutional law and the nudging of votes in the desired directions. All the while, quantitative work in academia beavered away at turning every branch of human endeavor into ranked and rated statistical relationships. As the abundance of quantitative academic papers fed the data pool, a new generation of more extensive quantitative models and analysis became possible.

The convergence of these trends eventually laid humanity at the feet of computing, which had available patterns of analysis that took tens, if not hundreds, of academics to generate over decades. Once these patterns were available for machine consumption, we became a slow and foreign element in our own world. Not only is the data we consume electronically – like our lists of personal contacts, daily calendar, and the documents we write – primarily digitally (rather than in in a discursive language like English) – the more complex appearances of it are very thick. That is, it is the accumulation of generations of human work. The strategic calculations of a Wall Street trading bot on stock market behavior uses patterns and models generated though papers and studies laboriously worked out by academics and analysts over nearly half a century and receives data in enormous volumes because of channels slowly built over time by other human labor.

While “quants” did have their time training these computers, machine learning now takes over more and more of the task through increased computing power merged with newly available “big data”. “Quants” became less prominent as actual machines took center stage.

In most fields, the computer is now the “smartest guy in the room.” Quo vadis homo sapiens? In the face of this development, I take heart in the first article of the German constitution. That constitution was written in late 1940s specifically to preserve humanity against a possible dehumanizing force of the type their country had seen 1934-1945. The provision is: “Human dignity shall be inviolable. To respect and protect it shall be the duty of all state authority.” (“Die Würde des Menschen ist unantastbar. Sie zu achten und zu schützen ist Verpflichtung aller staatlichen Gewalt.”) There is no caveat on this provision that human dignity remains inviolable provided humans remain smarter and more competitive than machines.

From the point of view of a human, I like this technology policy. It places no break on technological development, but anchors humans and their dignity at the center of the world, even a world in which machines are clearly more talented and efficient than are humans. After all, the models and data patterns computers apply and the technology they use to process such data result from the accumulated efforts of innumerable people. If efficiency remains our primary touchstone, people will become useless, as they are clearly no longer “the smartest guys in the room,” but in a world centered on humanity and its dignity, the machine takeover will simply mean delegating much activity to a device able simultaneously and rapidly to use the best accumulated human knowledge and conclusions. “Human dignity” as the purpose of government is sufficient bulwark to prevent the “techno-feudalism” that Martin Ford and others have seen as a possible and undesirable future arising from current trends in technology.

David Donald, Hong Kong


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