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As Computers Get Smart, We're Getting Dumb

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Rules are dumb. We all know it. Each of us has a magnificent brain, the most intricately engineered known artifact in the universe, and yet in a world of rules, we're not trusted to exercise our judgment.

For the last half century, it's been the computer that enforces countless inflexible rules for the masses. The bank's computer remorselessly levies a fee if the credit card payment comes in five minutes late. The insurance company's computer determines that the specialists we see are "off the plan" and automatically fires off hideously high invoices. We object to the rules and resent their senseless electronic administrators. We appeal to humans. Surely they'll understand.

But now things are turning around. Computers are learning about us, and focusing on exceptions. Humans, meanwhile, are binding themselves to inflexible rules. In other words, while machines grow smarter, we're getting dumber. This is especially clear in politics.

As IBM's Watson demonstrated in Jeopardy, today's advanced machines are evaluating evidence. Watson makes its bets based on probabilities. It's never 100 percent sure of anything. That's partly because it doesn't know or understand things the way we do. But still, it's a smart way to look at the world. If you're not sure about something, after all, you'll give it some analysis. That's what Watson does, and it's not a bad thing.

Humans are heading in the other direction. The game of politics, for example, is to find a disastrous example of someone's judgment. Say a governor implements an amnesty program for aged inmates. Several hundred are released, and one of them commits a horrible crime. The governor's opponent promptly promises to keep every single prisoner in jail to the last day of his or her sentence. Forget probabilities. Toss human judgment out the window. These people will all fall under the same rule. The system will operate like an old-fashioned computer.

Every time we use our judgment, we run the risk of making an error. That's life. And in areas in which errors are unforgivable, we hide behind rules. The rules are often idiotic. But they cannot be blamed. Rules are rules. The more we rely on them, the more we cede our intelligence and act like yesterday's machines.

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