An Expanse of Complexities


The promise of big data is huge. It empowers us to take in monumental amounts of information, more than we could ever hope to process across multiple lifetimes, and make sense of the disparate pieces in a matter of hours. We can find correlations that we previously would have missed. Big data has been used to solve impossibly complex problems, from logistics to crime. We’re using it to find trends we otherwise could never identity, and those trends have unearthed insights ranging from diseases to to human behavior. And the speed at which we can do it is astounding; these days, live data is becoming an increasingly common expectation. We’ve gained power that was beyond the imagination just 20 years ago.

With that promise of power comes, of course, a huge responsibility. Unfortunately, we don’t know quite how big that responsibility is. Neither do we know how big of an impact a misstep could have. A few people have embarked upon the journey to find those edges. What they’ve come back with are hair-raising stories of frightening but impossible armageddons (think science fiction.) Others who are exploring the lands closer to home have come back with questions about privacy, surveillance, consent, and security. How do we account for these issues as technology becomes more and more powerful? Where does humanity fit in a world dominated by technology? As we make the mad dash towards the promise of progress, it seems as if we’re removing our very selves from the picture. No wonder why we’ve begun to fear technology taking over our jobs or enslaving people. Even if, for now, it’s mostly in the realm of science fiction.

Chapter 1

Technology and its ambitions are nothing new. Throughout the ages, humans have explored a myriad of ways to fulfill life’s needs and necessities. But as those necessities were increasingly met, we instead turned our efforts to making life easier. The scales tipped towards efficiency and ease. And at some point, what was once a quest for a higher quality of life has distorted into a race for how quickly we can get rid of discomfort.

Technology’s most recent ambition is the race towards instant gratification. If the giants of technology are to be believed, the future lies in the masses accessing any information, at any place, at any time. We will someday know exactly where everything is before we even pause to think about it. If an object needs to be retrieved, the quickest route from it to us will be provided. During the crucial moments of travel, we will be able to track its progress down to the minutes (if it will even take a minute to get to us). But in the perfect utopia, anything will be available before we can even think to ask for it.

If that sounds like a vision of the far-away future, consider recent transformations in delivery services. Every request is granted with an ETA and detailed tracking. What was once an unhelpful estimate of “Shipping within the next few days” has become “Expect your delivery next Tuesday”. It’s the norm these days to click a tracking number and know exactly which warehouses it’s gone through and where it will be by this evening. It’s not uncommon to have a delivery window of just a few hours, graciously allowing you to plan your day around the event. And the players who are leading the industry are the ones who show you exactly where your package is heading at this very moment. Haven’t received your delivery yet? Here’s a helpful link where you can track its progress in real time. Watch the moving colored dot superimposed on a map of your neighborhood. And if this example of real-time data sounds like a luxury for the few, it’s not. These days, it’s a basic expectation in the world of ride-sharing and public transit. It’s not even a novelty to see multiple moving dots and choose which one you want to serve you.

In some ways, we’ve created a world where the unknown is banal and patience is useless. Waiting—and that blank, uneventful space it inhabits—feels wrong. We’ve become increasingly uncomfortable with the concept of nothingness. And in turn, that has left us increasingly anxious and stressed about the unavoidable moments it inhabits in our lives. We’ve put ourselves into a situation where the only solution to discomfort is to feed ourselves more and more information. We must constantly be making progress, be aware of every outcome, be prepared to face every moment of the day with confidence and coolness. And we can only do that by knowing everything.

Chapter 2

So we use big data to know as much as possible about the world around us. But how much do we know about big data itself? Sure, we’re given unprecedented amounts of conclusions to work with. But where are these conclusions actually coming from? Even the engineers who create the systems admit that they don’t know how their creations either arrive at conclusions or choose a particular solution. And because it so conveniently works out, we’ve stopped questioning it. It’s an accepted tenet of artificial intelligence and supercomputers. Just get me my package, thanks.

Sometimes, it feels like critical thinking has become a skill that people call valuable but could honestly care less about. It’s like an outdated fashion accessory. We no longer make time for questions, because we could make money by delivery 50 packages in the same amount of time. We don’t give ourselves room to explore different solutions, because it’s easier to have a machine come up with the solutions for us. Why think about why we’re doing something if it’s already done so efficiently? And if it ain’t broke, why fix it? Why do the boring work when we could be doing cool work on the cutting edge instead? It definitely pays better and sounds much more impressive when we’re asked the common question, “So what do you do?”

Maybe we’ve convinced ourselves that understanding is no longer necessary. Maybe it’s not even a fashion accessory anymore. It’s just an obsolete commodity. As long as the solutions work, maybe that’s all that matters. We’re in a weird place where it’s okay to let computers do our thinking for us. And what’s weirder is that humans are now the ones doing the manual labor, like driving packages out to doorsteps by following the paths that computers have drawn for us. Wasn’t it supposed to be the other way around? Weren’t machines instead supposed to do the manual labor so we could focus on the thinking?

Chapter 3

There are two fallacies with letting the machines “think” for us.

Firstly, machines only learn by picking up bits from existing data. This information is inherently a thing from the past. When we feed that data into a machine and it regurgitates something, it’s still information from the past, just in a different form. In order for that information to become an insight, and then an action—one that affects the future—someone must make an inference from that information. The known must be compared to the unknown to reach a conclusion. A known plus a known will always only result in a known.

When a machine gets something it doesn’t know, it can’t do anything about the unknown. Only humans have the capability to picture the possibilities and react to them. A computer can find trends in relationships, but only humans can label overwhelming correlation as causation. There are more possibilities in the universe than there are numbers.

Secondly, computers operate completely in binary. It’s a world of 0’s and 1’s. There’s no room for spectrums or shades of gray. Emotions don’t exist there. But the real world isn’t like that. Living things have reactions to the events around us, and the reactions within a single circumstance differ from person to person. Our responses can’t be quantified or categorized into buckets of either-or. And, most importantly, we can discuss our differences. We can speak about our opinions and our opinions can change over time. We can meet each other at a halfway point. Machines can’t do that.

No wonder why the world reflected to us through social media is one where we’re on one side or the other, where we’re increasingly antagonistic towards each other. Algorithms can only sort us within any given category as a “yes” or a “no”. If we continue to live obliviously in that world, we may mistakenly come to accept that only binaries are allowed to exist.

Conclusion

Perhaps it’s time to regain control of our humanity amidst the madness of technology. If machines can never gain humanity, maybe we need to start exploring how technology and humanity can complement each other, instead of making technology a replica of humanity. Otherwise, we’re at risk of devaluing ourselves to the very things we’ve created. If we continue down that road, the only ending in sight is to remove humanity entirely. And once it’s gone, will we ever be able to get it back? I hope we never have to figure out the answer to that question.

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