Friday, February 20, 2015

The Singularity is Near! Or How I Learned to Start Worrying, and Distrust the Data.

I gotta admit, writing a new post after finishing a work week that consists of sitting at and looking at computer screens for 90% of the time isn't particularly thrilling to me, but a commitment is a commitment for better or worse so I guess here goes nothing. Noting that though, the quality of this particular post might be a little sub-par.

One other thought before I delve into today's post, it seems that I'm really interested in how I've become who I've become. And now I'm interested to know why I'm interested in that....weird?

Anyways, Data. Data. Data. Data.

It seems that the modern world is very driven by and fascinated with the word 'data'. Or is the world fascinated by the idea of data? I know from working in a consulting firm and having the job title of 'data analyst', that a lot of people have no idea what data is all about and what it can and can't do (sometimes my bosses have this issue, that's probably why they employ people like me), but it seems that most people whether they understand data or not, they at least recognize how much data drives a lot of (or all of) the business and economic world around us and therefore hold this word/idea in a very high regard.

The advent of the internet and the interconnected world that we now live in has produced a lot of ways to measure data that we as the human race didn't previously have. And now people like me, (and people much smarter than me) are fascinated by the idea that everything that we could ever want to know is hidden in data somewhere. Which data has the answer we want is a mystery, and what question we have to ask the data to get the answer we want is also another mystery, (also sometimes even what answer we're looking for is a mystery), but there seems to be a general consensus that the answer is there, somewhere.

(I feel like this is a good time to point out that everything I'm saying is unbacked by any data whatsoever, which yes, is very ironic considering that I think of myself as a data nerd.)

What drives humanity's blind faith in data? Is that faith really blind? I sometimes think that we've created this data monster that spits out statistics based answers and trust it implicitly in a way that something we discover/create shouldn't be trusted, since humans inherently shouldn't be trusted either (or at least everything we do/say should be taken with a grain of salt.) It reminds me of that age old question which always fascinated me, "Did we discover mathematics? or did we invent it, and find that it had a lot more uses than we originally planned?"

I think that a more skeptic approach should be taken to blindly trusting data in general, but how that would play out in the modern world is up in the air (let alone the improbability of that actually happening.) A lot of people think about the upcoming singularity (the point at which the things people create are smarter than the people who create them) as a landmark event in the timeline of humanity (which it totally is). Naturally, a lot of questions abound about how this superintelligence will make choices and how those choices will affect mankind occur, along with questions about what powers we should give to this thing that is smarter than the collective intelligence of all mankind. One thing that seems to be true to me is that this superintelligence would make decisions based on data and then blindly follow them given that one action would have a higher probability of achieving a desired outcome than another.

I think that one of the best qualities about mankind is the ability to question these things that seem obvious or unstoppable and the ability to fight to achieve a goal that has infinitesimally small probabilities of ever happening (think about every inspiring movie you've ever watched). What I don't humanity to lose in this data driven age is that very human trait of distrust, and I'm worried that if we continue in our blind trust of data that we will ultimately lose this.

Just goes to show, for every data nerd out there we need an artist. And for every statistician out there, we need a person who is willing to fight the odds and exceed at all costs. I know I find myself using probabilities and expected values of outcomes to feed my decisions and I think that leads to a safe style of living and never straying far enough from the path to really enjoy some great things in life. May it never be true about humans that we all lose that key characteristic of distrust and fighting "the machine".

'Til Tomorrow

Tomorrow: Valuing the Environment

No comments: