The Random Comic Strip

The Random Comic Strip

Words to live by...

"How beautiful it is to do nothing, and to rest afterward."

[Spanish Proverb]

Ius luxuriae publice datum est

(The right to looseness has been officially given)

"Everyone carries a part of society on his shoulders," wrote Ludwig von Mises, "no one is relieved of his share of responsibility by others. And no one can find a safe way for himself if society is sweeping towards destruction. Therefore everyone, in his own interest, must thrust himself vigorously into the intellectual battle."

Apparently, the crossword puzzle that disappeared from the blog, came back.


Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Spreading Smarts

I was watching the Boob Tube yesterday (NFC and AFC championship games) when I noticed an ad from IBM about "building a smarter planet." The concept is interesting in itself. But beyond the obvious there is something else that crept into my fertile brain.*

We are expanding the power of our smartest people.

That's right. Instead of an intelligent person dabbling in his arts in some research facility or university, sharing his findings among the intellectual elites through lectures and books, he can be right there with us in everyday life. He can be assisting all of the rest of us as we struggle through the many little puzzles we must solve each day.

The ability to make fire ages ago gave man the ability no other animal had. Some ancient, almost ape, forerunner of man was a genius of his day and figured out how to create fire. Not just capture it from a burning tree or plant, not just to keep it going, but to create it where it had not been before. And then he did the truly amazing thing... he shared that knowledge with his peers. Beyond discovering how to make fire, the ability to share knowledge has been key to human civilization.

We all know that knowledge is power but it is limited unless it can be shared. It might help a few but it can be lost if they are lost. Without passing that knowledge to others, knowledge can easily be lost and progress will be slow. Modern man's greatest inventions have been in the arena of communication. From cave pictures depicting hunts (which help teach the younger tribesmen how to hunt ) to paintings and sculpture, to clay tablets, to papyrus, to schools, to paper, to pen and ink, to printing presses, to photography, to moving pictures (silent to sound and monochrome to color), to televisions, to computers. All of these things have spread the ideas and knowledge of the relatively few geniuses to the masses of people.

Today we are seeing the proliferation of computing into all kinds of machines and tools. Instead of the tool user having to learn how to use the tool, the tools can now function more on their own. The knowledge of the tool maker built into the tool. This is passing the knowledge without the recipient having to learn.

Let's look at ovens. After man figured out how to make fire, he began to cook his meat. He did this on open fires. Eventually he learned to contain the fire so it could be used more efficiently. Stoves first, cooking on top, then ovens where the heat would be all around the food. But no control beyond knowing how much wood (fuel) to use. Ovens got more sophisticated, wood was replaced by gas and electricity. Ways to measure heat were found. Ways to control the amount of fuel were found. This allowed more precise control of the cooking process. Cooking can now be done more easily, more uniformly, more efficiently. This was sharing the knowledge, bringing it to the everyman.

Timers were invented, then integrated into the ovens, making it possible to cook more precisely through use of technology. Smart ovens are out there. One day, you will select "roast beef, medium rare", put the meat in the oven, and come back when the oven reports it is ready. Or maybe robots will do that for you.

As people think of new ways, better ways, more efficient ways to use a tool, we are starting to build that knowledge into the tools we use everyday. Take a good look at cars, for example. Computers monitor fuel mixture and spark. It was not so long ago that these were set by the driver, later by mechanics when they tuned your car. But those computers now also monitor tire pressure, control safety devices, warn of possible danger, remind us of service needs.

IBM's advertisements talk of a smarter world. Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe it's just Smarter Tools. Tools with "smart people" built into them.

And we are hardly noticing.

*(aside: it is fertile possibly because it is full of manure).

5 comments:

The Logistician said...

Gordon Childe [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gordon_Childe], the great philologist and archaeologist and author of "What Happened in History," once noted that the factor which most significantly distinquishes humans, from others in the animal species, is our ability to pass on "historical experience and learning" to succeeding generations and others through various means.

Douglas said...

Log - I do not recall the teacher who infused me with the concept that man's ability to pass knowledge, made possible by language and enhanced by a written language, is what made him different from all other animals. I lean toward man's ability to conceptualize abstract ideas as the basis for all learning and, therefore, the creation of language.

The Jules said...

How long before the tools don't need us to do the job though?

Not sure I agree with Childe as there are a lot of animals which must learn by being taught, and show innovative thought processes. A good example are the Japanese macaques which separate sand and rice using water, a skill one discovered just a few generation ago that they now all use.

Douglas said...

Jules - Do you agree with the Theory of Evolution? If so, do you think it stopped when someone postulated it? Do you think intelligence is only found in humans? Do you think communication only exists within a certain range of intelligence? Consider those questions in the context of your comment.

Douglas said...

Log - I do not recall the teacher who infused me with the concept that man's ability to pass knowledge, made possible by language and enhanced by a written language, is what made him different from all other animals. I lean toward man's ability to conceptualize abstract ideas as the basis for all learning and, therefore, the creation of language.