Artificial Intelligence Is a Complement to Human Intelligence, Not a Substitute for It


Source of book image:

(p. 11) Clive Thompson, a Brooklyn-based technology journalist, uses this tale to open “Smarter Than You Think,” his judicious and insightful book on human and machine intelligence. But he takes it to a more interesting level. The year after his defeat by Deep Blue, Kasparov set out to see what would happen if he paired a machine and a human chess player in a collaboration. Like a centaur, the hybrid would have the strength of each of its components: the processing power of a large logic circuit and the intuition of a human brain’s wetware. The result: human-machine teams, even when they didn’t include the best grandmasters or most powerful computers, consistently beat teams composed solely of human grandmasters or superfast machines.

Thompson’s point is that “artificial intelligence” — defined as machines that can think on their own just like or better than humans — is not yet (and may never be) as powerful as “intelligence amplification,” the symbiotic smarts that occur when human cognition is augmented by a close interaction with computers.

For the full review, see:
WALTER ISAACSON. “Brain Gain.” The New York Times Book Review (Sun., November 3, 2013): 11.
(Note: the online version of the review has the date November 1, 2013.)

Book under review:
Thompson, Clive. Smarter Than You Think: How Technology Is Changing Our Minds for the Better. New York: Penguin Press, 2013.

Peck Shows that Job Interviews Do Not Identify Good Hires

(p. A18) Don Peck looked at how companies assess potential hires in an essay in The Atlantic called “They’re Watching You at Work.”
Peck demonstrates something that most of us already sense: that job interviews are a lousy way to evaluate potential hires. Interviewers at big banks, law firms and consultancies tend to prefer people with the same leisure interests — golf, squash, whatever. In one study at Xerox, previous work experience had no bearing on future productivity.
Now researchers are using data to try again to make a science out of hiring. They watch how potential hires play computer games to see who is good at task-switching, who possesses the magical combination: a strict work ethic but a loose capacity for “mind wandering.” Peck concludes that this greater reliance on cognitive patterns and game playing may have an egalitarian effect. It won’t matter if you went to Harvard or Yale. The new analytics sometimes lead to employees who didn’t even go to college. The question is do these analytics reliably predict behavior? Is the study of human behavior essentially like the study of nonhuman natural behavior — or is there a ghost in the machine?

For the full commentary, see:
DAVID BROOKS. “The Sidney Awards.” The New York Times (Fri., December 27, 2013): A18. [National Edition]
(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date December 26, 2013, and has the title “The Sidney Awards, Part 1.”)

The article praised by Brooks is:
Peck, Don. “They’re Watching You at Work.” The Atlantic (Dec. 2013).

Regulators Forbid Doctor from Curing Dentist’s Pelvic Pain

DavidsonDaneilPelvicPain2014-01-16.jpg “Dr. Daniel Davidson, an Idaho dentist, has pelvic pain so severe that he cannot sit, and can stand for only limited periods.” Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. A18) After visiting dozens of doctors and suffering for nearly five years from pelvic pain so severe that he could not work, Daniel Davidson, 57, a dentist in Dalton Gardens, Idaho, finally found a specialist in Phoenix who had an outstanding reputation for treating men like him.

Dr. Davidson, whose pain followed an injury, waited five months for an appointment and even rented an apartment in Phoenix, assuming he would need surgery and time to recover.
Six days before the appointment, it was canceled. The doctor, Michael Hibner, an obstetrician-gynecologist at St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center, had learned that members of his specialty were not allowed to treat men and that if he did so, he could lose his board certification — something that doctors need in order to work.
The rule had come from the American Board of Obstetrics and Gynecology. On Sept. 12, it posted on its website a newly stringent and explicit statement of what its members could and could not do. Except for a few conditions, gynecologists were prohibited from treating men. Pelvic pain was not among the exceptions.
Dr. Davidson went home, close to despair. His condition has left him largely bedridden. The pain makes it unbearable for him to sit, and he can stand for only limited periods before he needs to lie down.
“These characters at the board jerked the rug out from underneath me,” he said.

For the full story, see:
DENISE GRADY. “Men With Pelvic Pain Find a Path to Treatment Blocked by a Gynecology Board.” The New York Times (Weds., December 11, 2013): A18.
(Note: the online version of the story has the date December 10, 2013.)

Carnegie Created “Plausible Fictions” on the Future Demand for Minor Railroads

Economists and historians continue to debate the importance or unimportance of railroads in the economic growth of the United States. This is a debate that I need to explore more.

(p. 129) It is doubtful that either [Scott or Carnegie] . . . truly believed that the new railroads, when built, would carry enough traffic to earn back their construction costs. A great number of them were along lightly traveled routes, which, like the Gilman, Springfield & Clinton Railroad in Illinois, connected small cities that did little business with one another. The roads were being built because money could be made building them. Carnegie profited from the commissions on the bond sales; Scott from diverting funds earmarked for construction into the hands of the select number of investors, himself included, who were directors of both the railroad and the improvement companies.

To raise money for roads not yet built and probably not really needed, Carnegie and Scott trafficked in what Richard White refers to as “the utilitarian fictions of capitalism.” Together, they constructed “plausible fictions” about the railroads, the passengers and freight that would ride them, the tolls that would be collected, the villages that would grow into towns and the towns into cities, creating new populations, products, and commerce.
Carnegie, a consummate optimist, took naturally to the task.

Nasaw, David. Andrew Carnegie. New York: Penguin Press, 2006.
(Note: bracketed words and ellipsis added.)
(Note: the pagination of the hardback and paperback editions of Nasaw’s book are the same.)

AquaBounty Has Waited More than 17 Years for FDA Approval


The Enviropig Scientists at the University of Guelph, in Canada, developed these pigs to produce more environmentally friendly waste than conventional pigs. But the pigs were killed because the scientists could not get approval to sell them as food.” Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. 4) If patience is a virtue, then AquaBounty, a Massachusetts biotech company, might be the most virtuous entity on the planet.

In 1993, the company approached the Food and Drug Administration about selling a genetically modified salmon that grew faster than normal fish. In 1995, AquaBounty formally applied for approval. Last month, more than 17 years later, the public comment period, one of the last steps in the approval process, was finally supposed to conclude. But the F.D.A. has extended the deadline — members of the public now have until late April to submit their thoughts on the AquAdvantage salmon. It’s just one more delay in a process that’s dragged on far too long.
The AquAdvantage fish is an Atlantic salmon that carries two foreign bits of DNA: a growth hormone gene from the Chinook salmon that is under the control of a genetic “switch” from the ocean pout, an eel-like fish that lives in the chilly deep. Normally, Atlantic salmon produce growth hormone only in the warm summer months, but these genetic adjustments let the fish churn it out year round. As a result, the AquAdvantage salmon typically reach their adult size in a year and a half, rather than three years.
. . .
We should all be rooting for the agency to do the right thing and approve the AquAdvantage salmon. It’s a healthy and relatively cheap food source that, as global demand for fish increases, can take some pressure off our wild fish stocks. But most important, a rejection will have a chilling effect on biotechnological innovation in this country.
. . .
Then there’s the Enviropig, a swine that has been genetically modified to excrete less phosphorus. Phosphorus in animal waste is a major cause of water pollution, and as the world’s appetite for meat increases, it’s becoming a more urgent problem. The first Enviropig, created by scientists at the University of Guelph, in Canada, was born in 1999, and researchers applied to both the F.D.A. and Health Canada for permission to sell the pigs as food.
But last spring, while the applications were still pending, the scientists lost their funding from Ontario Pork, an association of Canadian hog farmers, and couldn’t find another industry partner. (It’s hard to blame investors for their reluctance, given the public sentiment in Canada and the United States, as well as the uncertain regulatory landscape.) The pigs were euthanized in May.
The F.D.A. must make sure that other promising genetically modified animals don’t come to the same end. Of course every application needs to be painstakingly evaluated, and not every modified animal should be approved. But in cases like AquaBounty’s, where all the available evidence indicates that the animals are safe, we shouldn’t let political calculations or unfounded fears keep these products off the market. If we do that, we’ll be closing the door on innovations that could help us face the public health and environmental threats of the future, saving countless animals — and perhaps ourselves.

For the full commentary, see:
EMILY ANTHES. “Don’t Be Afraid of Genetic Modification.” The New York Times, SundayReview Section (Sun., March 10, 2013): 4.
(Note: ellipses added.)
(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date March 9, 2013.)

Emily Anths, who is quoted above, has written a related book:
Anthes, Emily. Frankenstein’s Cat: Cuddling up to Biotech’s Brave New Beasts. New York: Scientific American / Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013.

Do You Have to Be a Human to Have a Soul?

I cannot prove it to the skeptical, but after observing and interacting with our dachshund Willy almost every day for about 10 years, I strongly believe that he thinks and feels in ways that show he has a soul.
And I have no trouble believing that if a dachshund has a soul, then an elephant has one too.

(p. A21) Caitrin Nicol had an absorbing essay in The New Atlantis called “Do Elephants Have Souls?” Nicol quotes testimony from those who study elephant behavior. Here’s one elephant greeting a 51-year-old newcomer to her sanctuary:

“Everyone watched in joy and amazement as Tarra and Shirley intertwined trunks and made ‘purring’ noises at each other. Shirley very deliberately showed Tarra each injury she had sustained at the circus, and Tarra then gently moved her trunk over each injured part.”
Nicol not only asks whether this behavior suggests that elephants do have souls, she also illuminates what a soul is. The word is hard to define for many these days, but, Nicol notes, “when we talk about it, we all mean more or less the same thing: what it means for someone to bare it, for music to have it, for eyes to be the window to it, for it to be uplifted or depraved.”

For the full commentary, see:
DAVID BROOKS. “The Sidney Awards.” The New York Times (Fri., December 27, 2013): A18. [National Edition]
(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date December 26, 2013, and has the title “The Sidney Awards, Part 1.”)

The article praised by Brooks is:
Nicol, Caitrin. “Do Elephants Have Souls?” New Atlantis: A Journal of Technology & Society 38 (Winter/Spring 2013): 10-70.

Patent Allows Mechanic to Profit from Invention to Ease Births

OdonDeviceEasesBirth2014-01-16.jpg “With Jorge Odón’s device, a plastic bag inflated around a baby’s head is used to pull it out of the birth canal.” Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. A1) The idea came to Jorge Odón as he slept. Somehow, he said, his unconscious made the leap from a YouTube video he had just seen on extracting a lost cork from a wine bottle to the realization that the same parlor trick could save a baby stuck in the birth canal.

Mr. Odón, 59, an Argentine car mechanic, built his first prototype in his kitchen, using a glass jar for a womb, his daughter’s doll for the trapped baby, and a fabric bag and sleeve sewn by his wife as his lifesaving device.
. . .
(p. A4) In a telephone interview from Argentina, Mr. Odón described the origins of his idea.
He tinkers at his garage, but his previous inventions were car parts. Seven years ago, he said, employees were imitating a video showing that a cork pushed into an empty bottle can be retrieved by inserting a plastic grocery bag, blowing until it surrounds the cork, and drawing it out.
. . .
With the help of a cousin, Mr. Odón met the chief of obstetrics at a major hospital in Buenos Aires. The chief had a friend at the W.H.O., who knew Dr. Merialdi, who, at a 2008 medical conference in Argentina, granted Mr. Odón 10 minutes during a coffee break.
The meeting instead lasted two hours. At the end, Dr. Merialdi declared the idea “fantastic” and arranged for testing at the Des Moines University simulation lab, which has mannequins more true-to-life than a doll and a jar.
Since then, Mr. Odón has continued to refine the device, patenting each change so he will eventually earn royalties on it.
. . .
Dr. Merialdi said he endorsed a modest profit motive because he had seen other lifesaving ideas languish for lack of it. He cited magnesium sulfate injections, which can prevent fatal eclampsia, and corticosteroids, which speed lung development in premature infants.
“But first, this problem needed someone like Jorge,” he said. “An obstetrician would have tried to improve the forceps or the vacuum extractor, but obstructed labor needed a mechanic. And 10 years ago, this would not have been possible. Without YouTube, he never would have seen the video.”

For the full story, see:
DONALD G. McNEIL Jr. “Promising Tool in Difficult Births: A Plastic Bag.” The New York Times (Thurs., November 14, 2013): A1 & A4. [National Edition]
(Note: ellipses added.)
(Note: the online version of the story has the date November 13, 2013, and has the title “Car Mechanic Dreams Up a Tool to Ease Births.”)