Linking Up

Putting it all together in A E van Vogt’s classic.  This edition published by Panther Books 1970.

Putting it all together in A E van Vogt’s classic. This edition published by Panther Books 1970.

It isn’t what you know (or even who you know), but how you connect things up.  There’s little value in having information if you don’t know what to do with it.  And sometimes that requires a creative approach to reasoning that may not be instantly recognisable – the concept known as “lateral thinking”, to use the term coined by Edward de Bono in the 1960s.

Extending this argument a little further, it’s fairly critical in science, or indeed most other areas of human activity, to have the ability to link various facts together, taking advantage of all the help available, in order to reach a useful conclusion.  In The Inclusion Equation (Scientific American, October 2014), Fred Guterl stresses the need to include the full diversity and range of expertise that others can provide if progress in science and technology is to be achieved.

This is an idea that the science fiction writer A E van Vogt developed in his 1950 novel The Voyage of the Space Beagle.  He introduced “nexialism” – an interdisciplinary approach which links together knowledge from various fields, requiring the nexialist to identify the information from different sources that may be relevant to a particular matter, and then putting it all together.  Needless to say, as van Vogt explains all too clearly in his story, specialists in their own fields don’t always react well to someone who takes their knowledge and makes more of it than they can themselves.

Since the time that van Vogt was writing, there has been one overwhelmingly significant development which should have changed the process fundamentally – computers. The speed of information flow ought to facilitate the ability of users to link things up on the grand scale.  Indeed, nexialism is where computers themselves should, of course, have a considerable advantage over humans, if only they could initiate the process of linking up the information at their disposal.  But, at least so far, that somewhat intuitive aspect of lateral thinking remains largely the province of humans.

However, that may not continue to be so.  If we see true artificial intelligence arising, that intuitive leap should be child’s play to a sufficiently sophisticated AI.  Add to that the vast quantity of pieces of knowledge immediately available through the Internet and we have the basis for nexialist AIs which could change the shape of human civilization for the better.

Or for the worse.  As Archos, the powerful, controlling artificial intelligence in Daniel H Wilson’s science fiction novel Robopocalypse put it: “The true knowledge is not in the things, which are few, but in finding the connections between the things.”  And although Archos had his own logical view of how the planet Earth should be populated, he certainly did not have the best interests of human beings at heart.

The problem is that, once AIs have the true ability to become nexialists, we’ve no way of knowing what they might do.  The answer, in a perverse way, could be to restrict the knowledge to which they have access.  But putting a cap on the Internet, or isolating AIs from it, seems unrealistic to say the least.  And, it goes without saying, always provided that the AIs themselves permit us to do so.

Richard Hayes, Assistant Editor (Odyssey)

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