We use our brains constantly, without even realizing it.
Now, close just your right eye. You can see your nose on the right! No big surprise there.
OK, now open both eyes -- where's the nose?! Sure, if you focus your vision right in front of you can make it out, vaguely. But you never really notice, as you are looking out on the world, that your nose is right there in the middle of your field of vision.
Where did it go? What you see with both eyes is the combination of what you see with each eye individually, isn't it? Yet the nose gets magically subtracted out somewhere. Your brain does that, automatically. It recognizes that the nose isn't anything important (it's always going to be there, or at least, it's not a problem until it ISN'T there), so it simply doesn't process the nose into the visual image you are aware of.
This process is repeated in countless other ways. Your eyes "see" everything around you; all they do is receive light waves in a certain frequency range. Your brain determines what is significant enough to reach your level of conscious awareness. Why do you notice things the second time you see a movie that you were unaware of the first time? You "saw" exactly the same movie! But you weren't focused on the same details, the first time, so it was as if they never entered your field of vision.
In Whirrled, computers will perform a similar filtering role. The amount of information flowing through interconnected digital networks will continue to grow. That sea of information, despite constant efforts to organize it, will be far too vast, far too time- consuming, for any individual to search through. We are used to thinking of communications delivery systems as a means of bringing information to you: magazines come in the mail, your newspaper is delivered by a smiling teenager on a bike, and television arrives over the airwaves. The function of technology is to carry the information from its source to your home, where you can dig through it.
With the expansion of global information networks, an infinite quantity of information will be available to you. Transmitting any information source to your home will not be a problem. The problem will be deciding which information source to receive, and how to sort out the material that arrives on your doorstep.
Up to now, we have had the luxury of scarcity in receiving information. We don't have to worry about all the information in all the libraries of the world because we don't consider making the effort to visit all of them. We limit our awareness to that sliver of information that is readily available to us: the contents of our local paper, the discussion on our favorite TV news show, the catalog of our local library. In Whirrled, we will be able to access all the major libraries on the planet just as easily as we can today access a daily newspaper. But with that enormous volume of information at our fingertips, the problem shifts to one of filtering.
Our brains are immensely powerful at making subtle, contextual distinctions, and determining from a pile of materials what we find interesting and significant. Computers do this very poorly. They are limited by the rules with which they have been programmed, and their mechanical understanding can never reach the sophistication of our organic choices. But computers have an advantage over us in another area: they are remarkably fast at performing massive numbers of calculations. Thus, with good enough programming, computers can filter information with a fair degree of accuracy and the lightning speed necessary to cut through the endless mass of data.
We may need to rely on these computer filters, but they will never quite match the filtering device we have between our ears.
In other words, there will always be a place for a good brain.
Copyright © 1996 Kevin and Adam Werbach.