The billable value of humility

In a previous post, I linked to an IBM executive who claimed that Watson’s success on Jeopardy! might revolutionize the legal profession.  Gary Kasparov, the chess champion who was defeated by IBM’s Deep Blue in 1997, makes an interesting observation over at the Atlantic:

My concern about its utility, and I read they would like it to answer medical questions, is that Watson’s performance reminded me of chess computers. They play fantastically well in maybe 90% of positions, but there is a selection of positions they do not understand at all….A strong human Jeopardy! player, or a human doctor, may get the answer wrong, but he is unlikely to make a huge blunder or category error—at least not without being aware of his own doubts. We are also good at judging our own level of certainty…but I would not like to be the patient who discovers the medical equivalent of answering “Toronto” in the “US Cities” category, as Watson did.

It would be ironic (in the extreme!) if what saved the legal profession from being taken over by computers was lawyers’ own humility.  In a world where machines can process far more data far faster than human minds, perhaps our weakness is also our greatest asset:  we know our limits.

A humorous yet relevant comment from the scientific past: “Oh, well, nobody is perfect.”

When I look at sociology journal articles from the past, a few things strike me: the lack of high-powered statistics and a simplicity in explanation and research design. In the current world of publishing demands and the push for always high-quality, ground-breaking work, these earlier articles look like they were from a more innocent era.

I was reminded of this by a recent Wired post. In this case, a geology journal had published an article in the early 1960s and another scholar had responded in print to this article by pointing out a mistake on the part of the original authors. This is not uncommon. What does look particularly uncommon is the response by the original authors: “Oh, well, nobody is perfect.”

In a perfect world, isn’t this how science is supposed to work: just admit your mistakes, don’t repeat them, and move on? But I can’t imagine that many current scholars could give such a reply, perhaps in fear that their career or reputation would be in jeopardy. And in the world of scientific journals, is this sort of back and forth (with candidness) even possible much of the time?

I also infer a sense of humility on the part of the original authors. Instead of going on for pages about how their mistake was defensible or trying to pass the blame, a quick one-liner admits the mistake, diffuses the situation, and everyone can move on.

From awe to impatience with machines

Christine Rosen at InCharacter.org writes about our relationship with machines. Her argument: people in the 1800s and early 1900s were awed by machines while today, “the more personalized and individualized our machines have become, the less humility we feel in using them.” Rosen suggests how this came about:

The awe experienced by earlier generations was part of a different worldview, one that demonstrated greater humility about many things, not least of which concerned their own human limits and frailties. Today we believe our machines allow us to know a lot more, and in many ways they do. What we don’t want to admit – but should – is that they also ensure that we directly experience less.

A thought-provoking essay. Machines are now so common and cheap that I think we often hardly recognize how they have changed our lives. In fact, new machines need to be almost life-altering (or have some new image attached to them) to gain our attention. Many of our common machines, like the automobile or many kitchen appliances, haven’t changed all that much over time as they still perform the same basic functions.

Having a sense of awe about a machine might also help us recognize some of the downsides of using new machines. If we are used to computers, we don’t think much anymore about the implications of joining a site like Facebook. Or we may not consider how having a search engine like Google affects how we think or gather and process information. We tend to accept new machines today as inevitable signs of progress (and we are progressing, right?) rather than stepping back and assessing what they mean.