- - Thursday, November 22, 2018


It’s not easy for moderns to wrap their minds around the challenges of the first settlers when they sat down to the first Thanksgiving table, folded their hands and asked the Lord’s blessings. The spirit of serving divine providence, of braving frightening forces of nature, of laboring with unwavering perseverance, is actually as rare as summer snow in any generation. If the sojourners of yore had been afforded the advantages of today’s artificial intelligence in crunching the possibilities of success, odds are they would have stayed home. Smart machines may be, but an algorithm can’t account for the invisible spark of human ambition.

Thankfully, the colonists of four centuries ago valued opportunity above comfort and chose to venture into the great unknown. Many suffered a miserable death, never knowing their gravestones would be the cornerstones of the coming great American era. A plentiful feast greeted the first Thanksgiving table, thought to have convened at Massachusetts’ Plymouth Plantation in 1621, but more relevant to the day was the deprivation described in John Lendrum’s “History of the American Revolution.”:

“The weather held tolerable til the 24th of December, but the cold then came on with violence. Such a Christmas Eve they had never seen before. From that time until the 10th of February, their chief care was to keep themselves warm, and as comfortable in other respects as their scant provisions would permit. They were so short of provisions that many were obliged to live upon clams, mussels, and other shellfish, with ground nuts and acorns, instead of bread.” The hardship chronicled nearly a decade after that first Thanksgiving was the sorry lot of the nearby Massachusetts Bay Colony, destined to blossom into the modern city of Boston.

Fast-forward to our own day and year. The horn of plenty is evident at every point of the compass. Far from scrounging the frozen landscape to forestall starvation, the descendants of those intrepid settlers can order a Thanksgiving feast for home delivery and wait in comfort to greet the giblets. It is the relentless effects of smart work that has tamed the harsh risks of living on the edge. Some of the smartest advances are products of artificial intelligence.

Yet the individual intuitively finds it unacceptable to use an algorithm — the recipe computers use to whip up solutions to a problem — in making decisions that have real-world consequences. A Pew Research Center survey published last week found that “Americans express broad concerns over the fairness and effectiveness of computer programs making important decisions in people’s lives.”

Presented with four theoretical scenarios in which algorithms could be applied in problem-solving, 58 percent of respondents said, in effect, no thanks. In criminal risk assessment for people up for parole, the unacceptable-acceptable spread was 56 percent to 42 percent. For automated resume screening of job applicants, the balance was 57 percent to 41 percent against. Regarding the use of automated video analysis of job interviews, the proportion was 67 percent approved to 32 percent opposed. Finally, 68 percent shook their heads at drawing up personal finance scores using various types of consumer data while only 31 percent nodded yes.

Probing for rationales behind the wide hesitancy to rely on computer programs to guide decision-making, Pew found violation of privacy to be a top concern. A disregard for fairness was frequently cited, particularly with regard to algorithm use in analyzing job interviews. The survey’s bottom line is plain: “Humans are complex, and these systems are incapable of capturing nuance.”

Most people have a problem with algorithms making decisions because people are not programs. China is an exception, drawing up a blueprint for a social credit system to shape the behavior of its 1.4 billion citizens. A digital brew composed of individual’s employment, financial and law enforcement records, the system is expected to produce a score-based profile starting in 2020 that communist authorities can use to issue rewards and punishments. Good citizens can reap benefits, like lower interest rates; bad citizens can expect penalties, such as being barred from train travel. Hard-line socialist Venezuela is said to be considering to follow the Chinese.

The proportion of humans with the fire of ambition in their eyes is small. The share of them who, like the first settlers of the New World, lift a fiery countenance and folded hands to heaven in gratitude is even smaller. If artificial intelligence had thumbs (and maybe someday it will), it would likely turn them down on the ambitions of such modern-day adventurers compelled by promises of faith or fortune to risk everything for a better life. Unlike computers and their algorithms, humans know the difference between crazy, and crazy like a fox.

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