I just finished reading The Turk: The Life and Times of the Famous Eighteenth-Century Chess-Playing Machine, which Dean lent to me to read on the plane. Like lots of history novels, it’s chock-full of interesting facts and tales, and a large amount of it is written with the benefit of years of hindsight (which always makes the writer look much smarter).
For those of you who aren’t familiar with the story, it revolves around a mechanical “automaton” that apparently could play chess. In its 200 year lifespan, it played against (and beat) world chess masters, and chess aficionados, including Napoleon Bonaparte and Benjamin Franklin.
Now there was obviously no computing power around in the late 1700’s to effectively program a machine, so The Turk (named for its oriental robe and turban) had to use some other kind of mechanism. Hidden inside the cabinet was a human chess player, with a second chessboard, who was ‘watching’ the game, through an elaborate mechanism involving magnets and levers. The Turk was, in effect, a conjuring trick.
The thing that made the Turk remarkable, and that led it to be the talk of the courts of Europe in the 1700’s was the notion that it could somehow ‘think’, and react to the moves made by it’s human opponent. The prospect of thinking machines held amazing promise for the future.
Nowadays, computers can play chess, and often extremely well — using a brute-force, compute all the possible moves approach to the chessboard. Now, this is impressive, but it’s not thinking. It’s much more mechanical and rigid than the way a human thinks about the problem. Add to that, the notion that all of these chess-playing rules have to be programmed by an army of human programmers to start with.
So, the Artificial Intelligence of the future is still there — in the future. Tasks requiring repetitive manual labor may have been replaced by robotic machinery, but the knowledge worker isn’t losing their job to thinking computers any time soon.
Even with the amazing advances in software, in search analysis and indexing, computers are really only good for two things — doing math, and remembering stuff. If you need information, you may well be able to find it through your enterprise software. But if you need the analysis and counsel that adds value to that information — maybe we could dare call it ‘knowledge’ — you need to connect with the most sophisticated thinking machine you will find in your organization — another person.
And that’s why social software is so important. It’s a lot like the Turk. Sure, It looks like the computer is helping you out — but really, there’s a guy hidden inside the cabinet…