In honor of Bruce’s upcoming appearance at the Walker Art Center next week, I’m stopping by to maintain a sort of fan blog vigil here — consider this space a temporary Bruce Sterling devotional shrine. If I see Bruce Sterling in a tortilla, I’ll blog it here. If he appears in a tree trunk, I’m totally gonna phonecam it.
For now, though, here’s a link to the complete text of his amazing talk at last week’s O’Reilly Emerging Technology conference (aka eTech). My BoingBoing colleague Cory Doctorow wrote when introducing this text on our site last week, “I dropped out of university after reading his 1991 GDC talk — and they keep getting better.” Here’s an excerpt from Bruce’s eTech presentation:
Computers are not “smart,” in any useful sense of that term. They don’t “think.” They don’t have “intelligence.” Computers don’t “know” things and they don’t have any literal “memories.” They’re not artificially intelligent sci-fi beings like HAL 9000. Computers are boxes of circuitry, with strings, and slots for the strings. They are not alive and mentally active, they are just sitting there, ordinating. What is “ordinating,” exactly? Well, if we’d invested our attention in figuring that out, instead of awkwardly struggling to make these devices think like a human brain does, then we would have successfully explored the very large set of interesting problems that computers turned out to be really good at .
If you look at today’s potent, influential computer technologies, say, Google, you’ve got something that looks Artificially Intelligent by the visionary standards of the 1960s. Google seems to “know” most everything about you and me, big brother: Google is like Colossus the Forbin Project. But Google is not designed or presented as a thinking machine. Google is not like Ask Jeeves or Microsoft Bob, which horribly pretend to think, and wouldn’t fool a five-year-old child. Google is a search engine. It’s a linking, ranking and sorting machine.
Linking, ranking and sorting don’t sound very sexy, glamorous or philosophically crucial. Instead of nostalgically clinging to the words – the neologisms of the past, which are now archaeologisms – we should pay more attention to the facts on the ground. What works? What matters?