Can Smart Machines Be Too Smart?

E-mail Melanie Martella

The New York Times recently ran an article entitled "Why Nobody Likes a Smart Machine." The author, John Tierney, interviewed Dr. Donald Norman who is a cognitive scientist at Northwestern University and who has specialized in user design. Norman believes that as the things around us get smarter, we're heading for a culture clash between what we want to do and what the machines think they should do.

Too Different to Understand
Here's the quote from Norman that really caught my attention: "It would be fine if we had intelligent devices that would work well without any human intervention. My clothes dryer is a good example: it figures out when the clothes are dry and stops. But we are moving toward intelligent machines that still require human supervision and correction, and that is where the danger lies—machines that fight with us over how to do things "

His conclusion, after decades of examining how people interact with machines, is that making machines understand us is ultimately a futile endeavor, because we're simply too different. A brief review of the various artificial intelligence projects where researchers attempt to teach robots how to understand the world bears him out. In general we're very good at understanding our world and figuring out how other people will react to the same kind of contextual environmental cues (or not, as may be the case with people with autistic spectrum disorders). Heck, this is how con men make their living! But interacting with a poorly designed "intelligent device" is an exercise in frustration. As Tierney says, "You can't explain to your car's navigation system why you dislike its short, efficient route because the scenery is ugly. Your refrigerator may soon know exactly what food it contains, what you've already eaten today and what your calorie limit is, but it won't be capable of an intelligent dialogue about your need for that piece of cheesecake." The smarts in the machine aren't so smart when they're dealing with people.

Consumer vs. Industrial
My question is whether there exist industrial products that are as user-hostile as the hotel room clock radio with the Byzantine programming instructions? My assumption is that products that are difficult or frustrating to wrangle will be replaced with predictable, maintainable, and reliable ones. Is this a good assumption or do you see the same kinds of maddening "intelligent" behavior creeping into the industrial space? What kind of human-machine culture clash is most likely? Let me know what you think!

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