Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Knowledge and Man vs Machine

Growing up in Kolkata's academic and intellectual circles, I was always baffled by "erudition" being the most respected intellectual attribute. Someone who knows a lot, has read a lot of books etc was referred to in hushed tones of respect.

Yet I was drawn to ideas, creative expressions, and analytical insights and was never too keen on "knowing a lot" unless I had to, on a given topic. Somehow it felt that erudition was a means to an end, but not an end itself. The few times that someone had a big impact on me (and I have written earlier about my High School maths teacher Pinaki Mitra in this context) it was because they opened up new horizons and methods of intellectual exploration. I fell in love with mathematics because Pinaki-da's off-the-textbook ruminations convinced me that a lot of half-baked philosophical puzzles about the concept of "infinity" that I had in my muddled teenage brain could be formulated so crisply and elegantly.
A quarter century later, machine intelligence is replacing most routine tasks, including storage of facts and data as well as routine analysis. Google can beat anyone on just the capacity to store and draw upon knowledge (with due caveats about errors). Where does that leave the cult of the erudite?

Or, to put it provocatively, can a Sidhu Jyatha (the avuncular figure in the Detective Feluda stories of the Satyajit Ray who had an encyclopedic memory) compete with Google the Great?