by Mike Lynch

We’re out of time

Feb 22, 20124 mins
IT Strategy

In his 1950 paper entitled Computing Machinery and Intelligence, computer scientist Alan Turing opens with the words: “I propose to consider the question, ‘Can machines think?’”

Sixty years on, the idea of intelligent computers seems a little less ridiculous.

Technology catapults forward year-by-year with ever greater processing powers, bigger clouds, faster internet connections, sleeker interfaces and cleverer self-learning algorithms.

Are computers getting closer to human intelligence by being able to make value judgements, understand concepts and process a world that is not just black and white?

While the question of whether computers will ever truly be ‘thinking beings’ is still one reserved for the realms of science fiction and metaphysics, the speeds at which they are moving raises a more pressing question for CIOs — can humans keep up?

The timescale for computers has been accelerating for years now — what we could do in days 50 years ago now takes a few seconds — but the timescale for us humans has stayed much the same.

Our life expectancy may have nudged up a bit through advances in medicine, but it won’t double any time soon. It still takes four hours to drive from London to Manchester and nine hours to get to Washington.

We humans still need recharging on a daily basis, and some things can only be done face-to-face.

Despite mobile phones, the internet and videoconferencing, the peculiarities of the clever ape mean that the business world only really functions with face-to-face meetings — to negotiate a deal with your biggest suppliers, discuss your career with your boss or deal with a crisis, there is nothing like communicating in person.

World events such as the global recession and euro crisis, are like earthquakes caused by two tectonic plates moving at different speeds while rubbing against one other.

The first plate, technology, is moving faster every day while the second one, the human plate, is barely moving at all. When the next quake is coming can only be guessed.

This constant flow of data and capital is consistently chipping away at the boundaries of nations as we know them.

The financial crisis was international, so the solution must be international.

If humans create inefficiency in businesses, it’s nothing compared to the inefficiencies we create in diplomacy, as we’ve seen at Davos.

It will be impossible to create a system of international regulations that can compete with the exponentially growing technology in the financial sector without using technology itself.

Global institutions are increasingly vulnerable to technological changes, whether it is the effects of social media on the Arab Spring, leaked US cables or hackers sabotaging security organisations worldwide.

It is becoming clearer to governments and businesses all over the world that they are not infallible to the world of technology.

The warnings of CIOs across the world are being felt, and some of the people in charge are finally investing to strengthen their information systems, but there is still a long way to go.

The CIO tames ever more complex computing systems and then has to refine them, creating infrastructures entrenched in feedback loops and interdependencies. He has nightmares of system failures and data protection laws.

The eminent readers of this column are paid to innovate and find ever better tools that help their businesses function. But our cultural and political institutions are often unable to cope with the results of this human inventiveness.

So what solutions are there for us? Is it fair to say that what we can physically do as a species suffers from the law of diminishing returns?

But the technology we’ve built continues to accelerate away from us.

Modern fighter aircraft are so unstable that it is impossible for even the most talented human pilot to fly them safely, so instead they are controlled by a powerful system that can react a thousand times faster than any human.

Perhaps a new kind of approach needs to be taken throughout our cultural and political institutions, as well as in the world of business.

Where technology is advancing faster than human capabilities, it is time to go back to first principles, and learn to take advantage of the beast that moves at 10 times our speed.

This is the challenge of every IT department and every CIO. Should we trust the technology so we can do more with the information we have, and allow the humans to focus on what they are good at, at their own speed… creatively?