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Dealing with dumb machines on the way to smart ones

Tue 30 Jun 2015
FYI, this story is more than a year old

I like Smart Machines. That’s computers taking unscripted actions on your behalf based on contextual awareness, just like a good secretary does. I only have to pay attention to important things.

I like Dumb Machines that don’t do a thing without asking you. A well-designed dumb machine may give me sophisticated abilities to set rules, alerts, filters, macros, and more. But it won’t do any of that unless I tell it exactly what I want. I’m in control.

As much as I’ve learned to work with Dumb Machines, I’d really like to move on to Smart Machines. And it seems like the technology is just on the horizon.

The problem is that the path to that horizon leads down into the Stupid Valley before it comes out again.

Frustrating things happen in the Stupid Valley. My word processor auto-formats the wrong way and I keep having to interrupt my train of thought to undo it. My phone’s texting autocorrects restaurant names when I don’t have my glasses on (hilarity does not ensue since I don’t live in a sitcom).

Personalisation algorithms run amok when my streaming music service throws movie themes into my serious symphonic station. These things didn’t happen on Dumb Machines and they won’t happen on Smart Machines, but it’s everyday life in the Stupid Valley.

And, as part of the productivity software industry, we have only traveled a short way into the Stupid Valley. It can get worse … much worse. Actions are taken on your behalf that are incorrect, such as delaying a meeting because it thinks you’re running late when you really are on time but left your smartphone in a cab. Or violate confidentiality, such as giving away a change in leadership by showing a new person as interested in a document on your project. And don’t even think what can happen with auto-pilots, robotic surgery, autonomous weaponised drones, and self-driving cars. The Uncanny Valley is just annoying and unsettling. The Stupid Valley actually hurts you, from just wasting your time to driving you into a tree.

So what’s the answer? Well, I don’t own the Stupid Valley, I’m just trying to survive there. It’s a path we have to take to learn what works and what doesn’t; to tune the algorithms. Apply automated intelligence gradually, and maintain high visibility into its workings.

Allow those who don’t want to take the journey to opt out of having decisions made for them. Master it in harmless situations before using it in more serious ones.

I don’t think we need to retreat and resolve ourselves to living with Dumb Machines. But there will be some inconvenience and pain on the way to Smart Machines. We’re still mapping out the Stupid Valley.

By Craig Roth, Gartner

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