Do you remember the legend of John Henry? John Henry was a steel driller in West Virginia or somewhere thereabouts in the late 1800s. He was the best there ever was. Then one day the railroad bought a big steam drill that they said could drill faster than any man. Henry, secure in his abilities (and trying to avoid the unemployment line) challenged the drill (and the company) to a famous battle of “man against machine.” Using two 10-pound hammers, one in each hand, he pounded the drill so fast and so hard that he drilled a 14-foot hole into the rock. The drill, unable to clean off the bits of rock, got stuck nine feet in. But John Henry couldn’t celebrate for long, dying quickly of exhaustion.
I’m in the middle of the modern-day battle of John Henry and the steam engine. I’m a product manager. It’s my job to find out what customers want and what technology can deliver. Then I figure out how to get the computers to do the job that people need. So you’d think I was on the side of the steam engine, trying to make computers more intelligent so that they can just do everyone’s jobs.
Making computers smarter so they can do things like people is called Artificial Intelligence. A lot of people get very excited about Artificial Intelligence but it’s not as important as you’d think. While there are some things that computers can do better than humans (e.g., recommending movies, finding the quickest route), there’s a far larger and more important set of things that computers aren’t great at—at least by themselves.
In his book Deep Thinking, Gary Kasparov details his battle with Deep Blue and how computer chess, like many other forms of AI, go from laughably bad to incredibly good in just a few years. Kasparov lost to Deep Blue in 1997. He outlines a whole host of reasons including getting flustered in game 2 and IBM hiring a Russian speaker to spy on him. But he concedes that it was only a matter of time before computers were going to beat him.