|Rosenblatt with the Perceptron in the late 1950s.|
"One of the first digital machines that learned in this way was the Perceptron, a U.S.-Navy funded attempt at building a thinking, learning machine led by Frank Rosenblatt, a scientist at the Cornell Aeronautical Laboratory. The goal with the Perceptron, which debuted in 1957, was to be able to classify things that it saw – dogs versus cats, for example. To this end, it was configured a bit like a tiny version of the brain."So write Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson in "Machine Platform Crowd: Harnessing Our Digital Future" (W.W. Norton, 2017), a book recommended by Chief of Naval Operations, Adm. John Richardson.
The Perceptron is a tiny example of one of three "rebalancings" happening now, in this case "machines," where we see daily examples of how technology, often held in our hand, takes care of basic math, data transmission and record-keeping.
To show how far we've come from a time of paper-only business, the authors give an example of an area today where machines are not yet fully implemented. It hits close to home, reminding us of what it was like in a time of carbon paper, file carts and file cabinets:
"A disturbing window back to this time exists today at the 'Paperwork Mine,' an underground nightmare of inefficiency operated by the U.S. government's Office of Personnel Management. The site exists to handle the necessary administrative steps when a federal employee retires. Because these steps have not been computerized, however, the routine tasks require 600 people, who work in a supermarket-sized room full fo tall file cabinets; for baroque reasons, this room is located more than 200 feet underground in a former limestone mine. Back in 1977, completing the (quite literal) paperwork for a federal retirement took, on average sixty-one days. Today, using essentially the same processes, it still takes sixty-one days. The state of Texas, which has digitized its process, currently does it in two."
|CNO Adm. John Richardson sees innovations at the Naval Surface Warfare |
Center, Dahlgren, Va. Jan. 18, 2017. (Photo by MC1 Nathan Laird)
The authors think about thinking. They outline two systems humans use to think. The two ways mirror nature and nurture – our animal instincts versus "evolutionarily recent" human ability to contemplate and reason.
They cite Nobel prize winner Daniel Kahneman for his work in behavioral economics and for how he documented two thinking systems. Thinking system 1 is reflexive and relies on biases, intuition, emotions resulting in a reactive response. Thinking system 2 is more reflective, reasoned, based on data and other evidence.
Guess which type of thinking is more machine-like and more likely to have positive results.
The future is now. Artificial intelligence in machines is making quantum leaps in development, thanks to research and development, and with help from other machines.
Is this something to fear? Is there a dystopian post-Singularity world on the horizon under the banner of Skynet, as depicted in "Terminator"?
The authors are optimistic about the future, even as they run through all the areas that have been transformed in our society, where the Internet is a "shatterer of worlds" and platform for new platforms.
Here are the worlds shattered, as we once new them: newspapers, music industry, photography, magazines, phone companies, radio, malls and shopping. It was poignant to be reading this book when Toys"R"Us made their announcement this week about going out of business.
In the chaos, however, is opportunity.
We read how Facebook, Apple and Google platforms are transforming our world, both in accessibility and ease-of-use. The authors describe the success of apps like Dropbox, Fitbit, ClassPass, Uber, Waze, 99Degrees Custom, Airbnb, and others.
Einstein said, "Make things as simple as possible, but not simpler," and so we see limitations and balance in changes here and yet to come. In the spirit of Einstein: Make things as free and open as possible but not without security.
"It seems unlikely that the U.S. Department of Defense will ever turn to a digital platform to source the military's next fighter plane or submarine. This is because the market contains very few possible participants (only one buyer and very few sellers). In addition, the transaction is incredibly complex and requires enormous amounts of communication. Markets in which players are few and offerings are complicated will probably be some of the least amenable to platforms."In the disruptive, often chaotic revolution we are all navigating, McAfee and Brynjolfsson provide this guidebook to explain changes in egalitarianism, connectivity and empowerment.
By the way, the authors believe in capitalism, while lauding President Teddy Roosevelt's trust busting more than a century ago. "Capitalism can be an enormous force for good, but 'crony capitalism' – the act of distorting markets so that friends of the powerful an enrich themselves –should always be rooted out," they write.
The final area of change in this digital revolution involves the Crowd, another reason for optimism for a world in which freedom of ideas and expression is widespread and spreading.
"For the first time in human history a near majority of humans are now connected," they write. What does this mean in the long run for oppressive regimes in countries that restrict freedom of speech, expression and assembly as the people learn more about free and democratic societies.
Can incidents such as the recent eye-rolling Chinese journalist be quashed once they become viral, or are they out there forever for freethinkers to access and contemplate.
If libraries and hardbound encyclopedias represent the "core" of what's come before, as examples of centers of knowledge, the Internet and Wikipedia show the new "crowd," where collective intelligence and sharing information, centered on Thinking system 2 and properly verified, can educate and enlighten.
In its early years, Wikipedia, which was created by Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger and relied on public participation, was questioned for its veracity, but as the "Machine Platform Crowd" authors note, there are more good and honest people in the world than there are trolls and other bad actors. Today Wikipedia is nearly always accurate and carefully sourced.
After reading about the Perceptron, I went to Wikipedia to learn more about Rosenblatt and his work.
From Wikipedia: "In a 1958 press conference organized by the US Navy, Rosenblatt made statements about the perceptron that caused a heated controversy among the fledgling AI community; based on Rosenblatt's statements, The New York Times reported the perceptron to be "the embryo of an electronic computer that [the Navy] expects will be able to walk, talk, see, write, reproduce itself and be conscious of its existence."
The new in-crowd allows everyone's voice to be heard. People on the front lines often have the best ideas for improving processes. Smart bosses ask for their workers' suggestions and empower them to be innovative in their approach to their jobs while, wherever possible, including stakeholders.
"Smart organizations are figuring out how to take advantage of the crowd to get their problems solved, and for many other purposes," the authors write. Their advice: "decentralize," which is at the heart of the Internet: "The web has already greatly democratized access to information and educational resources."
Thanks to forward thinkers, the Navy is also part of the digital future.