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Hey, computer, how does that compare to the reaction of other presidents to other natural disasters….The problem is that while our computers can process the words of our news stories, they don’t understand the meaning of these words. our machines are only able to do the very specific tasks we assign them to. They are very clever, but they lack common sense….The task of thinking is still ours.

Damon Horowitz, CTO of Aardvark: Tedx Talk – SoMa.

Horowitz discusses how computers can index and search a corpus of news articles, find those related to the earthquake in Haiti, and then extract facts and figures through semantic analysis, but he concludes that these capabilities will only go so far. If you want to understand how Obama’s reaction to the earthquake differs from that of other presidents to other natural disasters, you need to ask a person. ┬áHe then closes with the familiar conceit, which Marvin Minsky observed in 1982: computers are clever, but they lack common sense.

Lamenting the decline in interest in philosophy, Horowitz steps back and suggests that technology’s focus on solving problems is an effort to “get rid of them,” rather than learn from them. As a philosopher, he suggests, when we encounter problems: “we’re grateful. They show us that there’s something wrong about our world-view. There’s something we need to learn…the insights we get from that are invaluable.”

It follows that technology, though useful, takes us away from our primary objective – human interaction. Human interaction facilitates thinking. Thinking begets learning, and learning helps us better understand the faults in our world-view, so we can engage family, community, business, sport, life. Therefore, one should orient technology toward facilitating human interaction and identify the specific problems that must be gotten rid of to do so. Horowitz concludes: “I now believe that the primary goal for technology should not be replacing human intelligence but rather facilitating human interaction.” Hence, Aardvark and engineered serendipity.

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