Being smart or what I can learn from my iPhone

Everyone is talking about smart. Everything is – or is becoming – smart. It started with smart phones. Suddenly, a familiar object that everyone used became not only functional, as all technologies in some way are, but smart also. After the smart phones came the smart watches and smart jewelry and even smart clothes. The trend to smart did not stop at apparel and accessories, but appliances such as smart refrigerators, smart cooking stoves, smart vacuum cleaners invaded the home. Indeed, the entire house is becoming smart. And if entire houses can be smart, why not entire cities? Finally, the Internet of Things is ushering in a 4th industrial revolution extending smartness to everything including not only cities, but smart factories, smart logistics, smart energy and so on. It would seem that being smart is becoming an important qualification for being itself. It would seem that existence today, and probably even more so in the future, depends on being smart and what is not smart or cannot become smart will have no place in the world. This trend should cause not only hope for a better future, but also raise some basic questions about what it is that we are calling smart. What does “smart” mean?

The adjective smart is usually applied to people who are considered clever, bright, intelligent, sharp-witted, shrewd, able, etc. It is interesting that we would hardly think of things in this way. This implies that smart technologies are changing the definition of what it means to be smart. If everything around us is becoming smart then these things are smart in a different way than we traditionally ascribe to human beings. My iPhone is not quick-witted, shrewd, or astute, but it does have qualities that demand to be called smart. What makes smart technologies smart?

This is not an idle question because when our homes, our places of work, our communication and transportation networks, and much more are all smart in a certain way, we humans will find that we are not the ones defining what it means to be smart. We will find ourselves in need of adapting to how the world around us is smart in order to become and remain smart ourselves. Floridi (The Fourth Revolution) speaks of a 4th revolution in which humans must learn to share the attribute of intelligence with machines, recognize themselves as “inforgs,” informational beings, and acknowledge that the world has become an “infosphere.” In a smart world humans are no longer the only ones in possession of intelligence and they are not the only ones who can say what intelligence means. Instead, we are part of an all-encompassing “socio-technical ensemble” that as a whole determines what it means to be smart. If we want to find out what smart means, then we have to take a step back from the mirror of Cartesian reflection and look at the whole socio-technical network. As actor-network theory puts it, the network is the actor.

One important consequence of this new perspective is that the distinction between “artificial” intelligence and “natural” intelligence no longer serves any useful purpose. The only relevant question is whether something is smart or dumb, no matter what or who it is. When the AIs become more like humans, and when humans adapt to living with computers, it becomes increasingly difficult and perhaps pointless to keep calling one of them “artificial.” What does it matter where being smart comes from? The important thing is to be smart and not dumb. It is not important if one becomes smart on one’s own (Aristotle’s definition of physis, nature) or with the help of another (Aristotle’s definition of art and technology, techné). In the encompassing socio-technical ensemble in which we live, nothing is entirely self-created and nothing is entirely created by something else. As Latour puts it, “Nothing is, by itself, either reducible or irreducible to anything else” (Irreductions in The Pasteurization of France). Smart technologies and smart people both live and prosper in the infosphere which is their “natural” home. The question of intelligence is therefore to be answered neither by brain scans nor by algorithmic auditing, but by discovering the principles governing the infosphere. This is not to say that neuroscience and data science are unimportant. On the contrary, they are both important actors in the infosphere. What it does say is that all actors participate in the global network society and are subject to its forms of governance, that is, to those principles that define what it means to be smart.

If we want to find out what smart means we have to describe how the network of humans and nonhumans that make up the infosphere works. We can start anywhere, so let’s ask what makes a smartphone smart. To begin with, it is connected. Smart devices are always connected to many other devices, to networks, and to people. They never stand alone, but are nodes and hubs in networks. Connectivity is therefore an essential characteristic of smartness. Secondly, connectivity enables information to flow, which is also an essential characteristic of smartness. Information is what enables the creation of value of all kinds. Whether it be hotel or restaurant ratings, photos or videos, documents, links, flows of information make e-commerce, e-learning, e-health, e-government, etc. possible. In addition to this, smart devices not only allow information to flow, they create information. Each device actively participates in the network by gathering, reconfiguring, modifying, and repurposing information. Fourthly, smart devices communicate with each other and cooperatively use information. Apps on a smartphone gather and send information to the cloud where it is aggregated and processed by other software in order, for example, to tell me how to avoid a traffic jam. Connectivity, flow, and participation is always in some form communication and cooperation. Fifth, being smart also means being transparent. Networks function on the basis of trust. Participation and communication are only successful, when all who are involved in the network know about each other, about who is saying what and for what purpose. Secrecy, disguise, and obfuscation create dumb networks and not smart ones. Transparency implies authenticity. Not only is it important to know where information comes from and for what purpose it is intended, but also who stands behind it. Misrepresentation only slows down the network and makes all activates less efficient and less useful. Finally, being smart means being flexible. The smartphone is smart because it can do many different things, and more apps with more use cases are coming every day. Networks are smart because they change quickly, do new things, and constantly create new forms of value. In sum it would seem that smartness is defined by connectivity, flow, participation, communication, transparency, authenticity, and flexibility.

Interestingly, this definition of smartness seems not only to describe smart devices, but also smart people. Intelligence has traditionally been defined in terms of cognitive abilities. Cognition is “the mental action or process of acquiring knowledge and understanding through thought, experience, and the senses” (Oxford Dictionary]. As a “mental” process, intelligence was something that brains do. Although cognitive science and neuroscience still are focused on what brains do, it is becoming more and more apparent that brains can’t do much of anything on their own. Cognition, intelligence, and mind are not properties of brains alone. but of distributed networks. Epigenetics, neuroplasticity, and distributed cognition are changing our basic assumptions about what intelligence is. Mind is no longer limited to the brain, but is understood to be embodied, extended, enacted, and embedded in the environment. Just as no organism can live apart from its environment, no brain can be smart that does not distribute cognitive abilities throughout its associations with the body, the world, and with technologies. Here again, the network is the actor. Or, in other words, being smart is also for humans a matter of being connected, participating creatively in flows of information, becoming a known and trusted partner in communication, and being flexible enough to adjust to new situations in unforeseen ways. It may be that the much discussed “singularity” – understood not as a supersmart AI, but as the convergence of human and nonhuman intelligence – is already upon us. Smartness need no longer be reserved for those apes with big brains that we call human. Maybe the “brain code” that Mindfire is looking for is not just a set of rules for neurons, but for how brains connect up to the world. Intelligence may well proove to be an attribute of the networked world. The question is no longer when the AIs will finally become as smart or even smarter than humans, but when society and the world will become smart instead of dumb. Superintelligence and transhumanism may not have much to do with humans at all, but more with networks of humans and nonhumans working together.