Duck Soup: Goodbye Yellow Brick Road

Thought has been humanity's greatest claim to fame since Descartes linked being and thinking in his famous first principle: "I think, therefore, I am." Before that we knew we were cool because God parked us in the middle of the universe. At least we imagined that's where we were, until the Italian joker Gallileo picked up on Copernicus and Kepler and knocked out our stilts. Author James Bailey believes computers are now poised to swipe our mental crutches, to move thought to a higher level, an alien place where we cannot follow. In his new book, After Thought, he argues convincingly that we are now entering a period of change unlike anything since heliocentrism cleaned our clocks 400 hundred years ago.Bailey divides our intellectual history into three phases (so far). At first we were concerned with Place, then Pace, and now Pattern. The Greek geometers aimed to calculate where they were, track the moon and planets, and predict eclipses. They soon discovered that the world was round. When curiosity hooked up with new technology which made long seagoing adventures possible, sailors wanted a reasonable shot at getting home.Navigation demanded better math. Fortunately Arabs had arrived with something called algebra and that led to Sir Isaac Newton's invention of the calculus. Newton's mental world is the one we inhabit today, but the looming questions of ecology, biology and behavior are beyond the ken of Newtonian physics. Now we are looking at patterns, at multiple causes and myriad effects.The first fifty years of electronic computing have consisted of letting circuits do what we do, albeit faster. The search for "artificial intelligence" has really been an attempt to create machines that follow Cartesian logic and work through equations sequentially. That was then, this is now. Sequential thought is just fine if you have limited data and need to go from A to B to C. Parallel thought is much better if you have a ton of data and want to compare every permutation. Notice that we are awash in information these days. (If you think you are keeping up you are obviously confused.) In Newton's day a reasonably well-read human could have a meaningful grasp of the sciences and the arts, poetry and religion. Today being well-read has almost lost its meaning. We are drowning in data and we all seem to be flying by the seats of our pants.Computers are now up and running with thousands of parallel processors. It's sort of a hypercase of two heads being better than one. Programs are no longer static instruction sets, instead they are allowed to evolve. Intermaths are developing that can expand genetically and learn to solve problems in ways that we cannot hope to fathom. All we can do is trust the programs that consistently offer right answers. Don't ask why. Don't ask how. The Internet is poised to become the biggest parallel processor of all with millions of computers able to access jillions of bytes of data. Hang onto your mice, folks, we are in for one stupendously wild ride.What will give meaning to human life when we are supplanted as the best thinkers? Will we veer back into the pre-Cartesian mentality that favored the group above the individual? Then what will become of political forms like Jeffersonian Democracy based as it is on individual worth? Is the smorgasbord mish-mash of ideas lumped under the credulous "New Age" umbrella a harbinger of our intellectual future? Will we become artists or shamans or couch potatoes? These are the sort of questions that haunt me after reading James Bailey's book. Will these questions even matter fifty years from today?AFTER THOUGHT, The computer challenge to human intelligence is a fascinating look at thought, human and electronic computers, clocks, printing, science, time and your sense of self. Parts of the book are even written in parallel. It is well worth a bit of your limited time to find this intellectual raft in the vast sea of print and sail it on home.


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