Thursday, December 05, 2013 - 1:12 AM
[tl;dr long post, working on tool whose goal is to exponentially reduce learning times because too much to know, too much siloing. Quotes Licklider.] Over the past couple weeks my productivity rate on a project of mine has sky-rocketed, everything clicking into place and the shape of something I have long dreamed of finally beginning to appear. The project has a modest goal: to greatly amplify the intelligence of the user. The primitive hominid form of an Exocortex if you will. It is a project that draws much inspiration from what Licklider called Man-Computer Symbiosis (the ideas have been with me even before I knew about Licklider, my original goal was a tool to make self learning easier/better but Licklider's work gave me a terminology and framework I could build around).
Here are key quotes from the 1960 document that are still very valid today:
It is often said that programming for a computing machine forces one to think clearly, that it disciplines the thought process. If the user can think his problem through in advance, symbiotic association with a computing machine is not necessary.
However, many problems that can be thought through in advance are very difficult to think through in advance. They would be easier to solve, and they could be solved faster, through an intuitively guided trial-and-error procedure in which the computer cooperated, turning up flaws in the reasoning or revealing unexpected turns in the solution.
Later on he points out that:
About 85 per cent of my "thinking" time was spent getting into a position to think, to make a decision, to learn something I needed to know. Much more time went into finding or obtaining information than into digesting it
Throughout the period I examined, in short, my "thinking" time was devoted mainly to activities that were essentially clerical or mechanical: searching, calculating, plotting, transforming, determining the logical or dynamic consequences of a set of assumptions or hypotheses, preparing the way for a decision or an insight. Moreover, my choices of what to attempt and what not to attempt were determined to an embarrassingly great extent by considerations of clerical feasibility, not intellectual capability
The main suggestion conveyed by the findings just described is that the operations that fill most of the time allegedly devoted to technical thinking are operations that can be performed more effectively by machines than by men. Severe problems are posed by the fact that these operations have to be performed upon diverse variables and in unforeseen and continually changing sequences. If those problems can be solved in such a way as to create a symbiotic relation between a man and a fast information-retrieval and data processing machine, however, it seems evident that the cooperative interaction would greatly improve the thinking process."
The emphasis is mine and also describes the key aspect of my project. The pivotal aspect being symbiosis: the object is not merely to return the best results for a query but rather to accelerate one's path in getting to the point where they can know the right questions to ask. Minimize the feedback cycle, reduce friction in interaction - the more automatic, the more likely the brain will interpret the totality of interactions as an extension of its mind. A state of flow. People think a good question answer system gives answers. No. It helps you ask better questions. This frame is what guides my hand.
Poincare anticipated the frustration of an important group of would-be computer users when he said, "The question is not, 'What is the answer?' The question is, 'What is the question?'" One of the main aims of man-computer symbiosis is to bring the computing machine effectively into the formulative parts of technical problems."
[I'll digress a bit to point out that while the earlier part of the document might have been written tomorrow, the latter parts which deal with more technical specifics haven't aged as well. One part even worries that typing might be beneath CEOs. Hah!] Licklider also explains the difference between mechanical extension and machine symbiosis. Extension still has the Controller/Servant aspect. No symbiosis, very unlikely for the whole to be greater than its sum.
"Mechanical extension" has given way to replacement of men, to automation, and the men who remain are there more to help than to be helped. In some instances, particularly in large computer-centered information and control systems, the human operators are responsible mainly for functions that it proved infeasible to automate. Such Man-Computer Symbiosis systems ("humanly extended machines," North might call them) are not symbiotic systems. They are "semi-automatic" systems, systems that started out to be fully automatic but fell short of the goal.
He also has a word for the AI folks:
In short, it seems worthwhile to avoid argument with (other) enthusiasts for artificial intelligence by conceding dominance in the distant future of cerebration to machines alone. There will nevertheless be a fairly long interim during which the main intellectual advances will be made by men and computers working together in intimate association"
The 15 may be 10 or 500, but those years should be intellectually the most creative and exciting in the history of mankind.
I'll be focusing my future writings on the project. I've been thinking on both the technical and philosophical aspects of the project. The latter being needed to stand as a guide for consistency, a framework of key definitions and principles that aid. Feedback, interaction, connections.
One advantage of IA is the intelligence of the machine doesn't need to be as polished as with AI; since we combine the brilliant, flexible pattern matching but error prone aspect of a brain with the rigid, precise calculating and clerical ability of a machine.
I'm not the only one working on such a tool, I know Palantir (and no doubt the NSA) is quite advanced in area. Things like the Remembrance Agent are ancient and Evernote (heavy user of) is in the same genre. The focus of mine is the autodidact, I care about interaction, framing and implementation as key - not some Chef Boyardee after thought, second to publishing or theory. Neither am I beholden to the whims of a project manager or uncertain customer. I'm merely a life long self learner that has identified key bottlenecks they would like removed. And indeed, I am already beginning to confirm pulling at those spots will lead to outsized improvements in process. I write this for myself but I hope it may one day reach the point of utility for others.