Artificial Intelligence (AI) and its potential impact on American workers and our economy have been front and center in the media for the past few years. An article by Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson that ran on Linkedin recently declared “Why ‘How many jobs will be killed by AI?’ is the wrong question.”
That title got us thinking. What is the right question?
In our opinion, the right question is: What is more dangerous to the future of the American democracy and economy, the artificial intelligence of computers and machines that have been programmed to think like humans or the “artificial intelligence” of we human beings who have been programmed by ourselves and others to believe with confidence that our information and insights are absolutely correct? We believe it is definitely the latter rather than the former.
In 1991, Thomas Gilovich wrote a wonderful book titled, How We Know What Isn’t So: The Fallibility of Human Reason in Every Day Life (How We Know). In his book, Gilovich describes in detail the “bounded rationality of human information processing” and the numerous errors that we all make in reasoning.
How We Know was published in the 20th century. Haven’t we gotten a lot smarter in this new century? We think not.
Witness the Great Recession which began in 2008. Behavioral economist, Robert J. Shiller, winner of the Nobel Prize in 2013, wrote Irrational Exuberance in 2000 before that economic collapse and Animal Spirits: How Human Psychology Drives the Economy and Why It Matters for Global Capitalism with George Akerlof, another Nobel Prize winner, in 2009 after the collapse.
Shiller’s basic point is that the fault for that disaster lies not in the system – but in ourselves that we are human. We tend to overestimate the upside potential of the markets and underestimate risk and consequences on the downside.
Robots and automatons would not make the mistakes that we did. But, we did because we have free will, emotions and the ability to think independently.
Now, consider the Trump presidency and the rise of fake news. There is little question among many observers that the primary oracle and origin for much fake news is President Donald J. Trump himself.
Not everyone would agree with that perspective, however. In fact, the majority of the approximately 39% of citizens who currently approve of Trump’s performance, probably see his tweets, talks and tantrums as the “real deal.”
The reason for that is simple and straightforward. They fall into what might be called the “values, attitudes and beliefs” (VAB) trap.
Social psychologist Milton Rokeach from Michigan State University was one of the foremost experts on belief systems. Rokeach developed a psychology of dogmatism. He found that dogmatism was a measurable personality trait created by the convergence of a closed cognitive system, authoritarianism and intolerance. As voting citizens, the dogmatists live at the extreme and can neither be influenced nor persuaded.
If you are not a Trump supporter, you may be reading this and congratulating yourself on the fact that you are not a dogmatist. That may be so, but hold on a minute. That doesn’t mean that you won’t and haven’t fallen into the VAB trap yourself.
The truth is that as humans, most of us tend to be imperfect data collectors and analysts. A study done in 2009 found that if some people were provided with accurate information on something and then read a blog that provided incorrect information that aligned with their “bias”, they tended to believe the blog even if it was not true. A more recent study of reaction to polling data before the 2016 presidential elections showed that “supporters of Mr. Trump and supporters of Mrs. Clinton showed a similar bias in favor of the desirable evidence.”
Our bounded rationality is not restricted to politics or economic issues. It is transcendent. False knowledge and faulty logic has been part of the human condition from the time there have been humans.
Last year, Chuck Klosterman wrote a New York Times best seller titled, But What if We’re Wrong? His book deals with the limitations of human knowledge and experience in terms of the ability to forecast what will happen in the future.
Klosterman looks at predictions from the past and points out how incorrect many of them have been. For example, he cites a 1948 issue of Science Digest which stated it would most likely take 200 years to land a man on the moon.
As he notes, that “prediction was off by only 179 years.” Klosterman does not attack or criticize those Science Digest predictors, however. Instead he comes to their defense by writing, “So, it’s not that the 1948 editors of Science Digest were illogical; it’s that the logic doesn’t work particularly well when applied to the future.”
It is 2017 – and some times logic seems to be in short supply. What we are seeing instead is much certitude and hubris and many people carrying signs that say hurrah for my side. America’s artificial intelligence is on the ascendancy and our shared humanity appears to be on the decline.
We write this as we approach the 4th of July. It is a time to celebrate.
Part of that celebration should be the recognition that as citizens we are not robots and are imperfect vessels. We are all imperfect.
But, as Americans concerned about the future of this country we should all be in this together striving to create a more perfect union. That’s what the founding fathers knew when they constructed the Constitution as a living document – knowing full well they were not perfect themselves.
Happy 4th of July!