Good morning, Quartz readers!
We already rely on machines to build our cars, trade our stocks, and answer our customer-service calls. In the near future, they’ll likely drive our cars for us, care for our elderly, and even, in a limited form, replace us when we die. This week we explore this future in Machines with Brains, a 13-part series on the nature of humanity in an increasingly automated world.
But although machines are learning to do what only humans could once handle, how they learn is very different. A human artisan, trader, driver, or caregiver relies to a large degree on empathy—her ability as a human to infer what another human might want. Even bored ticket sellers or call-center operators use empathic cues to figure out how to serve you, not least because they have been on the other side of that conversation. Algorithms, though, learn through pattern-matching and repetitive training against quantified goals, and while this can make them very good—even better than humans—at certain things, they achieve them without any true understanding of what a human actually wants.
As computers serve more of our needs, empathy is drained out of our interactions, forcing us to adapt to the machine mind. You query Google using weird Google-search-speak, modify your enunciation for Alexa or Siri, spend minutes trudging obediently through automated phone menus when a single sentence could easily communicate what you want. It’s not only our digital servants who are being trained. So are we.
Increasingly, empathy will be treated as a luxury. We’ll pay more for a real human whose job is to understand us just as we are. As with bespoke shoes, artisanal coffee, or handmade clothes, we’ll shell out a premium for financial services, medical care, and even companionship that isn’t machine-made. Normally it’s the rich who benefit first from new technology; the irony of the AI revolution is that the rich will be those who can afford to benefit last.—Mike Murphy and Gideon Lichfield
Five things on Quartz we especially liked
How to visualize an iceberg. A trillion-ton formation, freshly split from an Antarctic ice shelf, inspired a global flurry of size comparisons. Zoë Schlanger, Jennifer Brown, and Katherine Ellen Foley created a handy, global guide to give you some context, whether you live in Spain (10 Madrids), or Turkey (four Istanbuls).
Russia’s helping hand. From Humphrey to Kennedy, there’s a long history of the Kremlin offering support to their favorite US candidates— what’s unusual about the Trump campaign is that they actually took them up on it writes Casey Michel.
I, robot. As part of Quartz’s Machines with Brains series, Mike Murphy documents his journey to create a digital twin using a messaging app that distills thousands of messages into a chatbot replica of oneself. In the process, he tries to figure out what robots can teach us about being human.
The groundbreaking case of the gay seagulls. In the 1970s, a pair of scientists discovered lesbian seagull couples in California. Zoë Schlanger explores how the scientific discovery, and resulting controversy, ruffled feathers and challenged the most trenchant argument about gay humans: That being gay isn’t “natural.”
A classic American conversation-opener is considered rude in much of the world. “What do you do?” is an innocuous cocktail-party question for most North Americans that doesn’t transcend borders. Lila MacLellan looks to small-talk experts for better lines to engage strangers, from the French to descendants of manners-maven Emily Post.
Five things elsewhere that made us smarter
Earth is not designed to survive climate change. The most frightening insight of David Wallace-Wells’s exploration of the consequences of the world’s warming in New York magazine is not that we are beyond the point of no return. It’s the realization that living through a hell of dislocation, epidemics, famine, and global conflict could be the only way humankind can be convinced to save itself.
The view from the bog. Political reporter Mark Leibovich susses out the changes in the US’s most famous “swamp” six months into Donald Trump’s presidency for the New York Times. Rather than draining DC, Trump has created a different creature altogether, throwing the Republican establishment off-kilter in the process.
Google’s academic influence. For the past decade, Google has paid professors from Harvard to Berkeley up to $400,000 to provide research that benefits their business. The Wall Street Journal’s Brody Mullins and Jack Nicas investigate (paywall) the company’s little-known campaign to defend their market dominance through academic studies.
Fox News’s Tucker Carlson is shaking up conservative media. The TV host is doing “something extraordinary” writes The Atlantic’s Peter Beinart: Challenging conservative orthodoxy on foreign policy with stimulating debates, presenting “a glimpse into what Fox News would look like as an intellectually interesting network.”
Will doomsday “biobanks” save us from ourselves? When the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, a “modern-day Noah’s ark” for crop seeds, flooded last October, no one noticed. But with climate change back in the spotlight after Donald Trump announced he was pulling the US from the Paris accords, Malia Wollan and Spencer Lowell of the New York Times chronicle the many banks—from caches of milk to cell cultures—scientists are building to understand, and perhaps save, the world.
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