Our Smart, Uninterested Machines

Last night I dreamt that I was a robot. It was a strange, lurid nightmare. I awoke in a sweat, mid-dream, half-expecting that I was in an episode of Black Mirror. It had all the hallmarks: a near-future that was disconcertingly plausible, sharp moments of dystopian cynicism, and a deep self-awareness that something was about to go terribly wrong. As I sat up in my bed staring into the darkness of my room, I tried to understand why the dream was so jarring.

Like other Millennials, I love technology. After college, I moved to San Francisco, the epicenter of technological progress, where, on my way to work, I pass Uber, Twitter, Square, among other startups trying to “change the world.” The goal is audacious but by leveraging the compounding effects of social network theory, behavioral psychology, and big data, these technology companies may have a shot to reimagine transportation, democratize communication, and revolutionize how we pay for goods and services.

There is no shortage of commentary about how smartphones and algorithms are shaping us to crave greater efficiency and productivity. Yet we haven’t stopped to consider that these are technical, not human terms relating to the ratio of useful work performed by a machine minus the number of computational resources used. As a college student, this technical jargon meant something quite simple: how many articles from a Google search could I quickly cite in my paper the night before submission. Term papers are not the only use case.

The promise of modern technology is that if you wake up before 6 AM, drink enough Soylent, outsource your grocery shopping, keep up with your friends on social media in between rideshares from one event to another in #FOMO, you will achieve success, maybe, even happiness. It all seems robotic. Technology used to be a tool that helped us us do things, but somewhere along the way, man became the tool. But man was not built to be a machine.

Man is a creature full of questions. Painter Pablo Picasso thought that this made us unique and at the same time, made computers useless because “they can only give you answers.” The journalist, Krista Tippett goes as far as to say, “The quality of our questions becomes, perhaps, more important than the quality of our answers.” Mankind is a beautiful mess, full of doubts and contradictions, seeking to find purpose and meaning — a quest that has given the world Michelangelo’s 16th Chapel, Aretha Franklin’s voice, Mahatma Gandhi’s civil disobedience, as well as numerous cat videos, top 10 BuzzFeed listicles, and Ryan Gosling memes. It is this mess, full of inefficiencies and brilliant laziness, that makes us human.

So, I’ll leave you with parting words from someone much wiser (and older) than me. “There will plenty of room for us to discover, explore, curate, invent, love, chat, experience things, all of which are inherently inefficient and not things that machines are good at,” says entrepreneur, Kevin Kelly. “And I think, ultimately, if we do this well, keep asking ‘Why?’ — not just ‘Why?’ the first time, but ‘Why? Why? Why? Why? Why? all the way down, as far as we can go,” we will wake up, human.

Thanks to Scott Kauffman and Krystal Smith for reading early drafts of this essay.