Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Buytendijk, Socrates Reloaded

A couple of years ago I wrote two posts on an earlier book by Frank Buytendijk, Dealing with Dilemmas. He is back with yet another thought-provoking book, Socrates Reloaded: The Case for Ethics in Business and Technology (Beingfrank Publications, 2012).

Buytendijk is an IT guy, not a philosopher. But he’s an IT guy with a fresh way of looking at intellectual and practical problems; as he titles his first chapter, “IT: Information Technology or Independent Thinking … Interesting Thought!”

Socrates Reloaded is wide-ranging. The author contemplates whether Marx predicted the end of the Internet giants, investigates the often stifling notion of best practices, and dispels the myth of one version of the truth.

In this post, however, I’m going to confine myself to a single topic: Can computers think?

Buytendijk starts with the famous Turing test from 1950: “Is it imaginable that a computer could fool a human being, and be taken for a human being as well?” If we focus only on the results, Buytendijk argues, “we cannot escape the conclusion that computers can think. In fact, they can think much better than we can. They can reason better, faster and deeper than human beings, with much more precision.” (p. 76) They would ace IQ tests. They can learn and evolve. Moreover, computers can be self-aware in the sense that they can run self-diagnostic software and report system malfunctions. Computers don’t seem to be all that different from us.

And yet we know they are, at least in their current state. “The killer argument is that computers do not create and invent things like we do. Computers haven’t created any true art simply because they felt like it. Computers haven’t displayed altruistic behavior. Computers don’t make weird lateral thinking steps and invent Post-it Notes when confronted with glue that doesn’t really stick, or invent penicillin by mistake.”

Buytendijk contends that ‘mistake’ is the key word here. Intellectually, “we, human beings, are special because we are deeply flawed. We make mistakes, we don’t always think rationally, our programming over many, many years of evolution is full of code that doesn’t make any sense, and so forth. We are special because we are imperfect.” (p.82) So for computers to become more like human beings they need to become more imperfect and rely more on fuzzy interpretation. Google’s search engine is, according to the author, a good example of the non-perfect computing paradigm.

Socrates Reloaded meanders through the history of philosophy looking for insights into business and IT problems. As a philosophical exercise, it’s not particularly satisfying. But for those in business or IT who want to expand their intellectual horizons it’s a great read. It’s challenging, not in the sense that it’s hard but in the sense that it shakes up preconceptions. And for those who worry about their privacy in the information age where function creep—in which data are used for purposes far different from the purposes for which they were collected—“simply happens” (p. 135), this book is a wake-up call. Reading Socrates Reloaded is definitely a worthwhile way to spend a few hours.

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