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Good to Gattaca

May 24, 2009

Lots of good stuff in the New York Times today. An “introductory” article on AI by John Markoff in which the usual suspects appear – Vernor Vinge, Kurzweil, Bill Joy – but also a couple people with whom I wasn’t familiar. Kevin Kelly is writing a book titled The Technium online (in very very small type), which is according to the Times “forecasting the emergence of a global brain — the idea that the planet’s interconnected computers might someday act in a coordinated fashion and perhaps exhibit intelligence.” There’s also a mention of

A.I. researcher Eliezer S. Yudkowsky, an employee of the Singularity Institute, [who] has proposed the idea of “friendly artificial intelligence,” an engineering discipline that would seek to ensure that future machines would remain our servants or equals rather than our masters.

Which will also be worth checking out.

In the business section, an article on Good to Great author Jim Collins. In a discussion of his methodology, I found this disturbing bit [emphasis mine]:

For each book, he hires a research team of university students, up to a dozen at a time, to help him during long summers of work. He is picky about whom he hires, typically from Stanford and the University of Colorado. They’re not always business students; they might be studying law or engineering or biochemistry.

He prefers to learn as much as he can about them before he meets them. “Because if I meet them, I may like them, and then all the assessment of the person is going to be filtered by the fact that I like them, and what I really want to see is the quality of their work,” he says.

So he will look at their transcripts. “If they even have a small glitch in their academic record over the last year, they don’t really get considered,” he says. “I need people who have that just weird need to get everything right.”

What is with this obsession with the perfect transcript? Like the Google candidate whose “C” in Macroeconomics drew a frown from Marissa Mayer, just a single “glitch” is enough to prove you aren’t good enough. Will you have the opportunity to explain that the week of the final, your entirely family and the dog perished in a terrible motorcrash? Or that you’d failed to parrot your professor’s beliefs on economic policy and he knocked you down for it? No, not unless you put it in your cover letter, because you’ll never get an interview to explain it, thanks to that “C.” Better to cheat on the test, buy a paper written for you at a mill, tell the teacher what he wants to hear, anything other than failing to “succeed” at grubbing that grade. The illusion of perfect competence at “learning,” behind which any number of actual failures to learn can be concealed by gaming the system, is the primary goal a student must achieve.

Walter Kirn’s Lost in the Meritocracy gets the full Sunday Book Review treatment as well, addressing this very subject:

Kirn grew up in the 1960s and ’70s, when technocrats were thoroughly systematizing American public education. In his suburban grammar school, subjects like art and music were formed into “units” and “modules,” implying that “learning could be engineered, and that it had been, perhaps by government scientists — the same ones behind the Apollo program, maybe.”

…the young Walter Kirn quickly learned that achievement could be precisely quantified, but also that the system for arriving at that quantification could be gamed. “I was the system’s pure product,” he writes, “sly and flexible, not so much educated as wised up.” He figured out how to turn a teacher’s question inside out and parrot it back in a simulation of thoughtfulness. If asked, “How does racial prejudice contribute to inner-city hopelessness?” he’d reply, “Is our conception of ‘inner-city hopelessness’ perhaps in itself a form of prejudice?” A maestro of multiple choice, he managed to ace his SATs despite having cracked only three “serious novels” by the age of 16: “Frankenstein,” “Moby-Dick” and “The Great Gatsby.”

On the opposite end of this spectrum is Matthew B. Crawford, a craggily handsome Ph.D. in political philosophy (shown in an attractive accompanying photo looking both Tough and Serious) who turned his back on the office to work as a motorcycle mechanic. In an article in the magazine, he expresses the frustration of so many knowledge workers, talking about a dreary job writing abstracts of journal articles which he wasn’t expected to, and discouraged from taking the time to, fully understand himself.

How was it that I, once a proudly self-employed electrician, had ended up among these walking wounded, a “knowledge worker” at a salary of $23,000? I had a master’s degree, and it needed to be used. The escalating demand for academic credentials in the job market gives the impression of an ever-more-knowledgeable society, whose members perform cognitive feats their unschooled parents could scarcely conceive of. On paper, my abstracting job, multiplied a millionfold, is precisely what puts the futurologist in a rapture: we are getting to be so smart! Yet my M.A. obscures a more real stupidification of the work I secured with that credential, and a wage to match. When I first got the degree, I felt as if I had been inducted to a certain order of society. But despite the beautiful ties I wore, it turned out to be a more proletarian existence than I had known as an electrician. In that job I had made quite a bit more money. I also felt free and active, rather than confined and stultified.

And on our society’s compulsive need to put everyone through the academic grinder:

A gifted young person who chooses to become a mechanic rather than to accumulate academic credentials is viewed as eccentric, if not self-destructive. There is a pervasive anxiety among parents that there is only one track to success for their children. It runs through a series of gates controlled by prestigious institutions. Further, there is wide use of drugs to medicate boys, especially, against their natural tendency toward action, the better to “keep things on track.” I taught briefly in a public high school and would have loved to have set up a Ritalin fogger in my classroom. It is a rare person, male or female, who is naturally inclined to sit still for 17 years in school, and then indefinitely at work.

…The visceral experience of failure seems to have been edited out of the career trajectories of gifted students. It stands to reason, then, that those who end up making big decisions that affect all of us don’t seem to have much sense of their own fallibility, and of how badly things can go wrong even with the best of intentions (like when I dropped that feeler gauge down into the Ninja). In the boardrooms of Wall Street and the corridors of Pennsylvania Avenue, I don’t think you’ll see a yellow sign that says “Think Safety!” as you do on job sites and in many repair shops, no doubt because those who sit on the swivel chairs tend to live remote from the consequences of the decisions they make. Why not encourage gifted students to learn a trade, if only in the summers, so that their fingers will be crushed once or twice before they go on to run the country?

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