What Differentiates Us From Computers
The following is an excerpt from the book You Are Not A Computer by Dan Sullivan.
You’re probably familiar with the game “Broken Telephone.” Take any 10 individuals in a row, with the first person whispering a message into the ear of the second, and so forth down the line. By the time the tenth individual says out loud what they heard, it bears no resemblance to the original message.
This is because we might mumble or forget what we just heard, or we mishear things and our brain immediately makes associations between what we think we’ve heard and experiences we’ve had. Each time the message gets passed on, it’s been altered by the unique experience of the individual passing it on.
Yet, if you do this with 100 computers in a row, the final message will be identical to the original. This is because computers pass on information reliably and accurately. This function is what human beings have programmed computers to do, and it’s the whole point of computers.
Everything gets altered.
The broken telephone game proves that humans cannot pass on information without distortions and alterations. They may have misheard it, they may have misspoken it, they may have misremembered it. No two people get the same meaning out of the same message. The words may be the same, and they may be in the same order, but each person changes the meaning of the words they hear.
Courtroom lawyers are familiar with this fact about people. If a person says something three times using the exact same language and in the exact same way, a lawyer will know that what’s being said has been rehearsed because no human would naturally do that. The words a person uses, and their emphasis when saying them, would change.
Unlike computers, humans don’t process all the information available to us, and we filter what we perceive, making us unreliable and often inaccurate.
Computers get it right.
In most cases, 100 computers (or 1,000 or one million) will process—that is, receive, store, and pass on—the same message infinitely. That’s why we choose to use computers when the messages we’re sending are crucial and when what gets sent has to arrive in the correct form. Computers don’t distort or alter messages.
We don’t want computers making up stories or meaning. We create our own meaning from the information we get by using computers, and we can create meaning out of our interactions with computers, but we don’t want computers to make up their own meaning and distort the message.
All we want from computers is speed, reliability, and accuracy. Those are the things that we programmed them to be able to do because those are the things that we as humans aren’t always capable of.
On the other hand, as humans, we create meaning for ourselves out of everything we experience, which is something that computers are unable to do.
Humans as computers.
For most of human history, so much depended upon individuals memorizing and passing on information, which is why whole centuries could go by without much progress— no matter how important the information, humans always managed to get it wrong.
There was knowledge and wisdom locked into the stories being told, and so it was very important that the stories be remembered word for word. But there was always emphasis and interpretation on the part of the storyteller, and every single individual hearing the story made their own associations, altering and distorting things just like a game of broken telephone.
Also, listeners often can’t help but interrupt with questions about what they’re hearing, which can ruin the flow of the story and therefore the meaning and the message. When a human hears a story, they conjure up images in their brain to match what they think the words mean. But the images in one human’s brain are different from the images in another human’s brain.
Computers, on the other hand, are always neutral, always objective, and always convey the message without bringing their own judgment, perception, or interpretation.
Bare survival, slow success.
We may be looking back at hundreds of thousands of years of human development. For most of that extraordinary time period, very little progress could be achieved—because humans were so incompetent at conveying information that could be passed on across time and distance.
Technology has allowed us to make progress much faster. We’ve created machines to do the very things we’re so bad at doing. Computers retain the exact information we want them to and can be used to deliver that information anywhere in the world, without altering any aspect of it.
Gradual growth of accuracy.
Over the millennia, there was information-processing progress that became permanent, including breakthroughs such as the alphabet, number systems, mathematics, measurements, writing, printing, and so on. And here we are today with faster and more powerful computers to ensure accurate memory.
This requires a certain amount of standardization. If a system is going to work for everyone, the quirks get eliminated from the system. And so we have to create new meaning to offset the loss of meaning.
The most standardized people, who accept other people’s meanings and haven’t developed their own ability to create meaning, are experiencing an enormous amount of anxiety. These are the same people who are scared now, making up stories about how computers are going to take over the roles of human beings.
But while the tools we’ve created keep improving, they remain systems that support us in doing the things we don’t excel at, which only frees us up for the creativity and meaning we uniquely produce as humans, which is irreplaceable.
Learn more about what makes human beings unique and irreplaceable by even the most sophisticated computers. Download a free copy of Dan Sullivan’s book You Are Not a Computer.