In setting up this site, I activated a plug-in in WordPress to improve spell-checking. The description told me how this magical tool would help me become a better writer, because it was a sophisticated set of artificially intelligent algorithms. Not that it really surprises me, but it’s crap. It does one things pretty well: it tells me when I have misspelled or mistyped words. It tries to “analyze” my writing to identify “complex statements” and other grammatical oddities, but so far it has not identified a single issue of this type that I found to be valid.
It’s no news that computers suck at some things. It just occasionally blindsides me when, with all the incredible things that computers are doing for me and for humanity, that doing anything remotely intelligent is still so far away. Last year people were ga ga over Watson and its ability to play Jeopardy. But Watson is still just doing what computers have always been good at: performing simple math-related tasks extremely quickly.
Also, in my ten years at Microsoft, I can’t tell you how many times the subject of whether editors were needed for documentation came up. The answer is simple. Yes. The world needs human editors who know things about language. We’re a long way away from computers being any good at it. People talk about the Turing test as the mark of the onset of real artificial intelligence, and then go on to assert that computers are already holding conversations with people as sales and service bots on the Web. These are just more smoke and mirrors for custom tailored situations. I put it to you that we needn’t worry about the AIs taking over the world until a machine can provide a high-quality substantive edit pass.