ANYTHING you can do, a machine can do better. Well, not really, but that’s what it has felt like lately. Rapid advances in “deep learning” have led to computers whose abilities rival or exceed ours, in tasks ranging from describing pictures to driving (page 19).

Cue a wave of anxiety about the potential for automatons to displace us not just on production lines, but also in white-collar and creative work. Some pundits are even warning that employment as we know it will cease to exist.

Perhaps. Right now, computers are mostly augmenting human smarts – for example, in medical diagnosis (page 18). Or solving problems without being limited by the human mind, allowing them to invent novel gadgets or even push back the frontiers of mathematics (page 28).

Will machines one day supplant thinkers and tinkerers altogether? Even where they outperform us, their discoveries will only be useful if we can make sense of them and apply them.

We already use tools that do things no human could, and whose workings no one person understands. In those respects, “thinking” machines are not so different from, say, the LHC – tools, or perhaps partners. At least until they start to have questions and desires of their own…

Magazine issue 3036 published 29 August 2015

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