Paper clip

“Information is not the same as intelligence.”

This was the first sentence from a speech by Charles Eames at the International Design Conference in Aspen in the late seventies. He was a man of strong feelings and stronger ideas. His life was spent in partnership with his wife Ray, working on and succeeding in bridging the gaps between concepts and communication, between art and application, between work and life.

They understood an important tenet about the act of communication: the common denominator is always people. Technology may be the tool, and in some cases it is also the messenger, but it is never the message.

Eames’s quote has several layers of meaning, most of which apply directly to key components of the decision-making process in contemporary business. The function of technology is to manage information, to gather, sort, link, group, position, prioritize, alphabetize, scrutinize, sometimes memorize. It is a tool – a useful tool, but just a tool. It may be the best tool ever invented, but it is still just the means to an end.

There are tools that manage other tools. Programs and directions are part of its memory, giving it authority to dictate to other machines, other tools. We have all seen examples of computer-driven robots that mimic many human movements and activities. In many cases, the robots can do a better, safer job. Robots, in any form, provide service in areas that are dangerous to humans. They perform functions and complete tasks that require a highly critical state of exactness with mind-numbing repetition. They perform these services with consistency and continuity. This is the current history of the physical side of technology, where tools work for us. The next generation of tools will attempt to think for us.

Since many of us, for the most part, could be considered non-combatants in the computer wars, on the sidelines so to speak, we have had the opportunity to evaluate the battle tactics and strategies of the combatants. Interestingly, the wars have been about language, one computer’s vernacular versus another’s.

After some time and several failed encounters on the battlefields of marketing, technology and the courts, the protagonists have reluctantly agreed to disagree. The result is a continuation of the conflict which has now moved underground and behind the scenes. For those of us who have a rooting interest for one side or the other because we have committed to a particular hardware, the current atmosphere is like the yellow-green sky before the storm. We know something is coming but not what, when or from where. At the moment and maybe for the next several months, the status quo, while not acceptable, is tolerable.

There’s the rub. The next generation of intellectual technology will probably have almost nothing to do with the past or the two language-driven combatants. A third player is preparing a “device.” A device like a glorified television set that will function more on the level of a video game. The special computer communication language will no longer be necessary. Translators will be built into the device. It will be as though you had a combination translator, guide, docent, teacher, concierge, and loving aunt inside the box. This will change the definition of technology for most of the world from something requiring extensive training and experience to something, with the user difficulty of a microwave oven.

However, nothing is as simple as electronic oracles project or as devastating as those that are chained to the past predict. The actual outcome will probably lie someplace in the middle. To get back to Mr. Eames, this revolution/evolution is not the story. It’s an important element but still only a player with only part of the answer.

What Charles Eames said refers more to us as human beings than to the newest, most innovative technology. The misnomer of artificial intelligence implies that machines will do the thinking for us. That has never been the goal or the assumption. Smart machines, yes, very smart machines, but still only tools.

Does it matter how fast computations can be made or how readily available enormous amounts of complex and in depth information are? It has always been what we do with that information and those numbers that makes a difference. Intelligence is not a commodity. It does not have volume or the malleability of matter. It is a concept. A concept of accumulation, articulation, evaluation and application.

“Information is not the same as intelligence” is the revolutionary’s chant that goes back to the first Frenchman who threw his wooden shoes in the machines, creating sabotage. It is the credo that inspired generations of writers who spoke to the value and worth of human ideals and compassion for one another. It is the murmur that is heard from every chief executive officer who is trying to take back his company from those who would guide its future using a quarter to quarter mentality without regard for the long-term goals.

Charles Eames was saying that people’s ideas and energies are more important than the accumulation of data. He was saying that the will of individuals is more tangible than hardware and more valuable than the latest software. He was saying that we have an obligation to ourselves not to forget that we make the choices for the machines, not the other way around.

Back to top