Smart and ‘easy’ tech vs. ‘the pleasure of finding things out’

Today’s information technology companies tout the coming era of intelligent digital assistants as a boon for the lives of everyone from overscheduled small-business entrepreneurs to parents of curious small children. Have a question? Just speak up and get the answer instantly. Need a task completed? Ask the AI and it shall be done.

Now, there are some applications where this sort of thing is undoubtedly helpful… a godsend even. Imagine, for instance, being paralyzed from the neck down, yet still being able to look up a colleague’s phone number, order groceries for delivery or post a new tweet, all without the help of anyone but an intelligent digital aide. In some circumstances, these technologies will seem nothing short of miracles.

In other circumstances, though? Not so much. Consider, for example, a TV commercial for Google Home that’s seen lots of airtime recently. In the ad, set in a cozy family living room at evening-time, a father is reading a book about the ocean to his young daughter. As kids do, the little girl keeps interupting the story: “Daddy, how big is a blue whale?” “Ooh, this is where Mom does a big whale noise!” “Do whales sleep?”

The dad is quick with answers, thanks to Google Home. “OK, Google, how big is a blue whale?” he asks, immediately getting an answer from the tabletop device: “Blue whale typically has a weight of 300,000 pounds.” “Huh,” the dad says, and returns to reading.

Contrast that answer to a child’s question with the following passage from physicist Richard P. Feynmann’s posthumously published book, “The Pleasure of Finding Things Out” (1999, Perseus Publishing):

“We had the Encyclopedia Britannica at home and even when I was a small boy [my father] used to sit me on his lap and read to me from the Encyclopedia Britannica, and we would read, say, about dinosaurs and maybe it would be talking about the brontosaurus or something, or the tyrannosaurus rex, and it would say something like, ‘This thing is twenty-five feet high and the head is six feet across,’ you see, and so he’d stop all this and say, ‘Let’s see what that means. That would mean that if he stood in our front yard he would be high enough to put his head through the window but not quite because the head is a little bit too wide and it would break the window as it came by.'”

Feynmann continues:

“Everything we’d read would be translated as best we could into some reality and so I learned to do that — everything that I read I try to figure out what it really means, what it’s really saying by translating and so… I used to read the Encyclopedia when I was a boy but with translation, you see, so it was very exciting and interesting to think there were animals of such magnitude — I wasn’t frightened that there would be one coming in my window as a consequence of this, I don’t think, but I thought that it was very, very interesting, that they all died out and at that time nobody knew why.”

What Feynmann was describing, as the title of his book puts it, was “the pleasure of finding things out.” In other words, the thrill of discovery, the joy of learning, the excitement of taking an unfamiliar path into new worlds of imagination and the mind. And I would argue that such explorations of discovery can, rather than being animated, be dampened and depressed by the likes of a Google Home or the Amazon Echo.

Quick, easy and automated answers have a downside, you see: they can contribute to making people less able to research and hunt down difficult answers on their own. It’s called “the paradox of automation.”

You’ve probably seen this in action in your own life. Before speed dial and smartphones, you might have known by heart the phone numbers for many of the most important people in your life. Today? You might not even be able to remember your own phone number.

The 2008 film WALL-E offered one vision of what increasingly easy and automated life might lead to: a society populated by people so reliant on technology they can’t move around without hover chairs and live on liquid nutrition because they can’t be bothered to even chew anymore.

By offering an easier, quicker alternative to consulting a printed dictionary, opening up a reference book or, yes, even Googling for answers the “old-fashioned” way, technologies like the Amazon Echo and Google Home can become the intellectual equivalent of WALL-E‘s hover chairs and Food in a Cup. You’re not ever going to get sucked into a fascinating, mind-expanding hour-and-a-half-long detour through Wikipedia and Websites for the Monterey Bay Aquarium, National Geographic, the IUCN Red List and WWF if you can just ask your desktop assistant how much a blue whale weighs, right?

That’s the problem. That hour-and-a-half-long detour can be an adventure that will lead you in directions you never anticipated with just one question. It can make you aware of the existence of the American Cetacean Society (yes, there is such a thing); introduce you to some of the taxonomic uncertainties about blue whales; allow you to explore photos, videos and sounds of every imaginable kind of marine mammal; and serendipitously come upon strange but fascinating articles like “A Brief History of Exploding Whales.” Google Home and Alexa aren’t designed to take you on such journeys. Nor will they tell stories like Richard Feynmann’s father did about dinosaurs being not just big, but big enough to smash your front window while trying to peek in.

In other words, you might find one thing out. But you’re much less likely to find out many wondrous, eye-opening, surprising and unexpected things on your own.

And where’s the pleasure in that?

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