Long before the Information Technology Age established a firm grip on the world, math and science students of all ages, abused calculators in their quest to finish their homework as quickly as possible. Generations of children and young adults would punch numbers into their calculators then jot down whatever was displayed on the screen. The sight of a student using a calculator was a pet peeve for most STEM teachers. These educators used calculators and other mathematical aids themselves, but they used them as tools. They knew how to do the math without the calculators and they knew how to use the calculator to arrive at a correct answer. Today, a “hello, Google,” or a “hey Cortana,” or maybe a quick “Siri,” or “Alexa,” will deliver an immediate answer to pretty much any question, but human nature alone dictates this technology is being abused just as calculators have always been.
So-called virtual assistants are only the natural progression of a web driven by technologies like search engines, A.I., and mobile devices. The answers they provide are based on countless sources of information from across the web. In many respect, they are just another means of accessing information that is available to everyone. Like all answer engines, they are simply search tools that offer the convenience of potential answers. When it comes to calculating basic arithmetic or finding answers to well-defined, fact-based questions with a finite set of discrete answers, virtual assistance can be a very convenient time savers. For more advanced math problems or questions with reason-based, opinion-dependent answers, which happen to be most questions in life, the results of virtual assistants and other answer engines tend not to be particularly useful. No matter the nature of the question, the validity of the answer must, of course, be assessed by the person asking the question.
Instead of helping people become more proficient and productive researchers, the transformation of search engines into answer engines encourages bad research habits. Human nature compels people to avoid discomfort. Looking for answers can be very frustrating, therefore people are likely to embrace any technology that immediately provides them answers. The validity or accuracy of those answers is irrelevant, unless there is an immediate punishment for using them or an individual is instinctively trained to engage in proper research practices. As it turns out, most of the population does not have the education or the proficiency of a top-notch researcher. Even those who plan to go into research fields, such as engineering, journalism, or law, lack proper research technique until they are trained, which means training them to avoid learning these skills prevents them from learning them.
With Google, Apple, Microsoft, and Amazon training young mind on a daily basis just to accept whatever answer their smart phone produces, it becomes less and less likely students will actually learn the solid research skills they need. Instead of thoughtfully engaging questions and weighing the information produced by credible sources, technology companies are simply handing kids, and adults, answers, which might be correct or horribly wrong. They might also be thoroughly irrelevant. The worst part is that younger generations will likely not have the intellectual tools needed to determine when an answer is incorrect or irrelevant, because their technology discourages them from learning the necessary skill sets. In other words, answer engines teach people to be more thoughtless. No matter how smart or educated a person happens to be, these counterproductive technologies teach them to be intellectually lazy.
Regardless of education and regardless of the information made available to the general population, there always have been and there always will be those who are more thoughtful and those who are more thoughtless. Technology can either make the thoughtful and thoughtless more thoughtful or the thoughtful and thoughtless less thoughtful. The advent of the internet, which made unfathomable amounts of information available to the general population, was seen as the beginning of a new era of enlightenment. The embrace and evolution of search engines empowered people to find the information they needed to make conclusions. For those with solid research skills and the ability to reason, the internet became a tool for enlightenment that allowed them to find the sources of information they needed. Even thoughtless people who lacked basic research abilities could use search engines to find useful information and valid sources of information, including other people who happened to be expert thinkers and willing educators.
Search engines can be frustrating, because they do not simply provide users answers, but they empower and encourage people to dig through the vast reservoir of human knowledge. They also help people find each other and interact, so knowledgeable and thoughtful people can derive answers for difficult questions based facts, reason, and debate. Answer engines, in contrast, deceive people into believing they no longer need to think and they no longer need other people who think. Obviously, most people can recognize when Google gives them a bizarre, off-the-wall response while few people rely on the internet to dictate every aspect of their lives. It is, however, the subtle impact of technology on the lives of people that has the greatest impact on the future of society. The emerging technology of today determines how we will think tomorrow.
Beyond undermining the research abilities and reasoning skills of people, the impact of answer engines on how information is organized matters. Because alleged relevance, i.e. popularity, and user approval shape what information is returned by an answer engine and search engine, they change how information is organized on the web. The organization of information on the internet determines how accessible information is. In addition to relying on popularity to determine what sources and information should be displayed more prominently on search results, Google’s preferences for so-called mobile friendly websites, websites with high quality backlinks, which can simply be an indicator of a site’s popularity, age, or niche market, and other characteristics determine how accessible information is. The transition to answer engines only helps solidify the suppression of highly valuable, yet unpopular or ill-structured, sources of information and reason.
Anecdotally, this writer has noticed a growing need to explore the second, third, fourth, and other search results pages when using Google. One of the most valuable uses for a search engine is the ability to find known information and known sources. Not only are high quality sources harder to find, or at least a diverse and large number of sources providing support for a conclusion, it is increasingly harder to find known sources. Even inside the Washington Outsider, this writer is having difficulty finding past and more recent articles he knows exist. The day an A.I. can debate a human with facts and reason is the day an answer engine will be useful. The day an answer engine can explain why an answer is correct and why it might not be correct is the day it becomes a tool of enlightenment. Until then, the premature transformation of search engines into answer engines will simply instill thoughtlessness and ignorance into people.
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