The map-reduce is not the territory

AI has the potential to run our lives. We shouldn’t let it.

Ben Werdmuller

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Someone holding an old-fashioned compass in Yosemite.

There are two ways to use GPS navigation in a car:

The first is to use the directions as gospel. The system has found the right path for you to take; you need to follow them if you’re going to get to your destination.

The second is as a kind of North Star. The navigation will always point you towards your destination, but you know that you don’t have to follow the directions: if you choose to take one street instead of another, or take a detour, the system will adapt and find another way to go.

In the first scenario, the computer tells you what to do. In the second, it’s there to advise you, but the decisions are yours.

The first may get you there faster, if the systems’s model of the streets and traffic around you matches reality to an adequate degree. We’ve all discovered road closures or one-way streets that weren’t represented on-screen. By now, most people are familiar with the practical implications of Alfred Korzybski’s reminder that the map is not the territory even if they haven’t encountered the work itself. The computer’s knowledge of the street and its traffic is made of city plans, scans from specially equipped cars, road sensors, and data from geolocated phones of people in the area. While this collection of data points is very often adequate, much is left out: the model is not the territory.

But even if the model were accurate, the second method may be the most satisfying. A GPS system doesn’t have whims; it can’t say, “that street looks interesting” and take a detour down it, or choose to take an ocean drive. The first method gets you there most efficiently, but the second allows you to make your own way and take creative risks without worrying about getting completely lost. Sometimes you do want to get completely lost — or, at least, I do — and then there’s no need to have the GPS switched on at all. You find new places, the second way; you discover new streets; you explore and learn about a neighborhood. You engage your emotions.

One way to think about the current crop of AI tools is as GPS for the mind. They can be used to provide complete instructions, or they can be used as a kind of North…

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Ben Werdmuller

Writer: of code, fiction, and strategy. Trying to work for social good.