Wednesday, October 25, 2023

Q&A with W. Russell Neuman




W. Russell Neuman is the author of the new book Evolutionary Intelligence: How Technology Will Make Us Smarter. His other books include The Digital Difference. He is Professor of Media Technology at New York University.


Q: Why did you decide to write your new book, and how would you define evolutionary intelligence?


A: This may sound a little overly dramatic but several years ago while in Prague at an academic conference, I woke up with a new idea in my head. I grabbed a piece of paper and jotted down the idea. It struck me as a potential Ted-Talk style talk about how technology would affect us.


The motivating question was would the technology control us or would we control the expanding network of technologies as they evolve. I kept jotting down ideas and the progression of thoughts began to strike me as full-length book material.


Those several pages of quickly scribbled notes turned into the final book pretty much in the original order they were jotted down.


Evolutionary intelligence is the next stage of human evolution as our capacities coevolve with the technologies we create. The wheel made us more mobile. Machine power made us stronger. Telecommunication gave us the capacity to communicate over great distances. Evolutionary intelligence will make us smarter.


Q: The book's subtitle is “How Technology Will Make Us Smarter.” What do you see looking ahead when it comes to the relationship between humans and technology?


A: We tend to think of artificial intelligence as “out there” located in machines ready to compete with us for jobs or maybe decide to do us harm. Perhaps we are just suspicious of things we don’t understand.


This book demonstrates that AI is a natural extension of other tools we have built to help us get things done. This tool can help us make better decisions and compensate for well-known biases in the evolved human cognitive system. We don’t want AI to just imitate us and think like humans. We want it to improve human thinking.


Q: What do you think are some of the most common perceptions and misconceptions about artificial intelligence?


A: We tend to project human qualities of competitiveness and aggression onto AI systems. Humans with those traits survived through eons of hunting and gathering through competition with other humans and other animals for scarce resources.


AI systems evolved through mathematical competitions for more successful problem solving. They have no reason to want to kill us and steal our lunch.


Q: What do you hope readers take away from the book?


A: When automobiles were first invented they were expensive, unreliable, hard to drive and the road system was designed for horses rather than cars. Many folks decided to stick with horses and buggies.


Readers of Evolutionary Intelligence will have a vision of what AI can do. No more horses and buggies.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: Immersive display technologies – augmented reality and virtual reality systems.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Recall that in the celebrated Frankenstein mythology Igor made a mistake and picked the wrong brain. It was a necessary plot element to make the horror story work. We tend to obsess over such dangers. Let’s not anthropomorphize the machines we build.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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