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World Futures: What Do We Need?

on April 14, 2017 - 7:19am
Los Alamos World Futures Institute

At the basic level, a computer is a system of switches that can be either on or off or perhaps somewhere in between.

In the off or on case, it uses binary mathematics to solve a mathematical problem. It receives input data, manipulates the switches, and outputs other data. Today the term refers to doing this process electronically even though it could be done mechanically. For an interesting side light, see

The key concept here is that the computer is an electromechanical device that must be designed by human beings and “told” what to do. It is dependent on human observation of the “world” and human interpretation and representation of how the “world” works. Humans make the rules – for now.

The capacity of computers has been growing at a phenomenal rate. If a graduate student in 1964 had an average 2016 personal computer available for his or her work, the student would have had a tremendous advantage over classmates. While perhaps a trivial observation, it underscores the value of being able to make multiple, complex calculations assuming you can define them and interpret the output. Yet it is totally dependent on the intelligence of humans.

Today the term “artificial intelligence” is often used in reference to some computing applications. Does this means that the artificially intelligent computer can make observations (including humans), deductively or inductively create new code, and automatically reprogram itself? And, as a result, direct or command human activity and rules? Yes and no.

You watch the weather person in the evening (or you are directed by your smart phone) and based on the report take action to secure your dwelling or car or other things based on observations and the output of a computer simulation that has issued certain warnings. Has the computer controlled your actions? The weather person? The weather? Or do you ignore it? While watching the weather, your cell phone beeps that you have an incoming text message. Do you immediately operate your cell phone to retrieve the message and respond (maybe) or do you ignore it until you roll up your car windows? At the same time, your computer beeps…your microwave oven beeps…your TV announces an incoming phone call. What do you do? And who or what is in charge of you?

As we move to the future and assuming the continued availability of power to run them, what should computers do?

How do humans interface with the computer? What calculations really need to be made? What problems really need to be solved that have an underlying mathematical representation? And how do we ensure that humanity remains in charge?

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