We've been losing. And the machines have been winning. Robots control manufacturing. Computers control all our communications. We've been losing the games too. Several years ago chess world champion Gary Kasparov lost a chess match to IBM's Deep Blue. More recently, Jeopardy champion Ken Jennings lost to IBM's Watson. He then "welcomed our new computer overlords." Should we all bow down to the new computer bosses?
Maybe not yet. Humans remain the masters in many domains.
Clearly machines and computers are better than humans at many things. Machines and robots are great at repetitious actions and are thus perfect for the assembly line. Computers can store a lot of information without experiencing a tip of the tongue failure.
But humans are better at living in the world. Since we have evolved in a complex interaction with several evolutionary pressures, we have some cognitive abilities that have proven difficult to program into a computer. Spatial reasoning is one of these abilities. Using spatial reasoning, humans have succeeded where computer algorithms have failed.
Human gamers successfully discovered the crystal structure of a protein - a monomeric retroviral protease. Khatib and colleagues reported in Nature that finding the solution had been a "long-standing problem." In just 3 weeks, the Foldit game players succeeded ‘where automated methods failed." The humans won.
Actually, it's more complex than the humans beat the computers. The humans used a set of spatial reasoning skills. These are evolved skills that some people develop extensively during their lives. The humans also used computers. They worked with the enemy; they were fraternizing with the enemy. The people were computer game players and they were playing a complex on-line computer game called Foldit. In Foldit, competing groups try to figure out the 3-D design of proteins. Apparently this makes for a fun computer game with important side benefits. Playing this game, the humans found the correct structure of a complex retrovirus protease that may allow other researchers to develop drugs that block diseases - diseases like HIV.
Perhaps this is the way forward - cooperation rather than competition. Humans working with computers and machines. We've always been tool users. Our tools allow us to be stronger, faster, and more effective.
Computers can make us smarter. They can make us smarter by holding our knowledge while we manipulate it. Memory, particularly working memory, has always been the limitation, the bottleneck, of human cognition. I just can't keep everything in my head. Sometimes I can't solve a problem, because I can't see the entire problem in my head. Writing allowed humans to store knowledge outside their heads. We can then manipulate the information without using our limited cognitive capacity to simply hold onto the knowledge.
I can store knowledge in written form or, better yet, in a computer. Then I don't have to worry about the knowledge anymore - it won't be forgotten. Sparrow, Lui, and Wegner (2011) called this the "Google Effect." When people believe that a piece of knowledge is stored in a computer, they are more likely to forget it. Why waste my time and energy keeping track of that information - Google knows it and I can always look it up later.
We have limited cognitive capacity. But our tools may allow us to use what we have very effectively. The protease solved by the Foldit players was far too complex for someone to hold in their head and manipulate. But with the pieces stored in the computer and displayed for the gamer, then the humans could devote their spatial abilities to solving the problem.