What are the truly difficult questions?

A couple of years ago I went on a three day trek that all but shattered my love of hikes. It was a hilly circuit, slippery and hot. But on the third day, as we slowly ran out of lollies, food, patience and even water; we were repeatedly greeted by false summits.

The end of the trail felt like a bone on the end of a stick. Meant to trick a hungry dog. This is the image that came to mind as I read this next grab from The Book of Why by Judea Pearl.

The successes of deep learning have been truly remarkable and have caught many of us by surprise. Nevertheless, deep learning has succeeded primarily by showing that certain questions or tasks we thought were difficult are in fact not. It has not addressed the truly difficult questions that continue to prevent us from achieving humanlike AI.

Artificial Intelligence has famously had a few “winters”, as what seemed like fundamental breakthroughs petered out. Similarly, the list of “transformational” technologies that failed to make a real dent is incredibly long.

For the non technical among us it can be very easy to mistake these kinds of false summits for fundamental transformation. Especially as they often do represent some progress. Finding themselves in products that we actually use or glimpse on breakfast television etc.

Part of the problem is framing. Especially as the incentive for so many is to hype. But it’s also a focus on outcomes rather than process.

The torture of that trek came from us focusing on the end rather than the journey. We lost track of the scenery, fresh air and each other.

We get tricked by technological false summits in the same way. By focusing so intently on what the technology can do. But the real power comes from looking at the process. Both the roadblocks and potential from questioning what the difficult questions are.

As always my emphasis