How does artificial intelligence compare to man-computer symbiosis?

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Many of today’s technology evangelists swear by the benefits of artificial intelligence. An article from the Forbes Technology Council explains how AI enhances efficiency, frees up humans for other tasks and strengthens the economy. But the council also warns of potential risks related to loss of control and unintended consequences.

Artificial intelligence has made leaps and bounds since J.C.R. Licklider considered its possibilities in the famous 1960 article “Man-Computer Symbiosis.” While the primary focus of the piece was about how machines could work alongside man to complete important tasks, Licklider conceded that there must be something more on the horizon.

“Man-computer symbiosis is probably not the ultimate paradigm for complex technological systems.” The famous computer pioneer believed that it was “entirely possible” that “electronic or chemical machines” would eventually outdo the human brain. Meanwhile, he contended that there would be significant advances as men and computers worked together in “intimate association.”

Even today, some experts still hold to the promise of productivity with man-computer symbiosis. Behavioral economist and data scientist Dr. Colin W.P. Lewis writes in his blog that “Human-computer symbiosis, not artificial intelligence, will spur new jobs.” He quotes from Samuel Butler’s 1863 article “Darwin Among the Machines,” in which Butler states that “the time will come when the machines will hold the real supremacy over the world and its inhabitants.” Meanwhile, assistant devices like Google Now and Apple’s Siri are proof that we are continuing to move in the direction of man-computer symbiosis.

Here Lewis summarizes the difference between AI and man-computer symbiosis: “Human-Computer Symbiosis is the idea that technology should be designed in a way that amplifies human intelligence instead of attempting to replace it.” Rather than turning over all responsibilities and decisions to computers, humans continue to leverage this symbiotic relationship. He says that analytical, statistical thinkers will especially benefit in the workplace.

The future, however, is not required to comply with the various predictions of scientific experts. The extent to which computing machines will actually be able to think remains a matter for debate. Computers have already replaced entire occupations, and automation continues to affect human work in amazing ways. The ultimate role of computing and its impact on the human condition is indefinable at this point. But the valuable assistance of computers in completing human tasks – the writing of this Q&A, for instance – is clear evidence that man-computer symbiosis is not going away anytime soon. Perhaps the supremacy of AI will have to wait.

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David Scott Brown
David Scott Brown

Throughout his career, David has worn many hats. He has been a writer, a network engineer, a world traveler, a musician.As a networking professional, David has had a varied career. David started out troubleshooting frame relay and x.25 with Sprint, and soon moved to Global One, the international alliance with Deutsche Telekom and France Telecom. Since then, he has worked for many national and multinational network providers and equipment vendors, including Sprint, Deutsche Telekom, British Telecom, Equant (Global One), Telekom Austria, Vodafone, o2/Telefonica, ePlus, Nortel, Ericsson, Hutchison 3G, ZTE, and Huawei.As a writer, David's portfolio includes technical articles, short stories,…