Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Do computers make knowledge obsolete?

Computers are becoming smarter and smarter. They can help us find our way in a city we have never been before (navigation system). They know facts we can’t remember (e.g. Wikipedia). In fact, they are so smart that they can not only beat world class chess players in a game of chess, but even the best Jeopardy players in the quiz. As a consequence, if their knowledge outdoes ours, why should we still bother to learn facts like other countries’ capitals, former presidents’ names or historical dates?

In a TED Talk, Ken Jennings, who holds the record for most consecutive wins on the classic American trivia game show, Jeopardy, remembers what it was like when super computer Watson beat him in the game. He reasons on the consequences of the recent developments. When jobs that require thinking, like for example finding law cases relevant for a certain trial or writing a newspaper article about a football game, can be done extremely well by a computer, why should we still bother to acquire knowledge?


In his talk, he explains that the downside of this development is that our brains are not challenged any more. As a result, they shrink and we become dumber. In his opinion, this is a problem because our world is increasingly complex. There is so much information that we need to be familiar with in order to make good judgment and decisions and thus master the complexity. When we don’t have the information available, will we bother looking it up? Or will we just make a (most likely not very sound) decision based on what we know? And what happens if we simply do not have the time to look something up, but need to respond to a certain situation instantly? From the examples he gives in his talk, it becomes quite evident why having knowledge in different fields available is important to survive in this world – literally!

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