In my current role at Microsoft, I speak about the future of technology and its implications for economic development and global competition, for research and education, for business practices and social welfare. Do I speak as often as when I was a professor at the University of Illinois? No, for that was a set schedule of lectures, either twice or three times each week. Do I speak to more diverse audiences with more varied interests? Absolutely, for I address groups both large and small – government policymakers, non-profit and non-governmental organization (NGOs) members, business leaders, technologists, customers, business partners, faculty, students and the general public.
Almost all of these presentations involve extended question and answer sessions, which I find quite stimulating. The diversity of the audience guarantees that the questions will be equally varied and interesting, with widely varying perspectives and insights. I learn from the audience just as I hope they, on occasion, learn from me. After all, you can take the professor out of the university, but you cannot take the university out of the professor!
In one of these discussions, a member of the audience posed a thoughtful question that I have continued to ponder. The context was a presentation I had just given on the future of intelligent assistants – computer systems that can respond to speech and gesture (i.e., natural user interfaces) and that can reason based on a corpus of unstructured data. The specific question was about the effect of global positioning system (GPS) devices on our intuition and spatial reasoning. Simply put, did use of a GPS lessen an individual's ability to think about the reasonableness of the directions and relative locations?
I do not know the answer; it is really a question for sociologists, psychologists and neuroscientists, as well as urban planners. In response to the questioner, I did opine that I had at least once blindly followed my GPS to an empty field, which was supposedly the address of a restaurant. I was surprised to find a colleague there, one I was meeting for dinner. He had done the same thing.
This set me to thinking about the effect of technology on many day-to-day activities. My cursive writing has descended into near illegibility given rarity of use. Of course, my handwriting was never great, as my former graduate students can attest, based on their struggles to decipher my written comments on thesis drafts. I always blamed it on my left-handedness, though that is more of an excuse than a justification. In my defense, I still remember my second grade cursive writing teacher noting that I was left handed and remarking, "You're on your own here, kid."
Similarly, my spelling, which was once excellent, has atrophied due to word processor autocorrection. When writing longhand, I took care to spell each word, with a dictionary nearby for those rare occasions I needed to verify the spelling of a word. Now, I continue touch typing at full speed, knowing that I can correct the errors either inline or later.
Although I rue the loss of my cursive skills, I generally believe that successful technologies become invisible, dissolved into the fabric of society. They supplant older, previously valuable skills. Few of us would now survive as hunter-gatherers, but almost all of us can now use a search engine to query the world's knowledge base.
Having said that, qualitative reasoning and intuition regarding orders of magnitude do still matter. If your pedometer suggests you walked 50 miles today, think again. If your ATM reports that your bank balance excceds that of a small country, don't retire just yet. And if your GPS sends you to an empty field, don't wait for your table at the restaurant to be cleared!