These days many of us are re-examining some old questions: Can remote working be successful? What about remote schooling?
Philosophy professor Hubert Dreyfus (1929–2017) attempted to answer these questions 20 years ago. His book, “On the Internet”, was published in 2001, two years before Skype, at about the time when Google was becoming popular. Here is the concluding summary of Chapter 3, “Disembodied telepresence and the remoteness of the real”:
[O]ur sense of the reality of things and people and our ability to interact effectively with them depend on the way our body works silently in the background. Its ability to get a grip on things provides our sense of the reality of what we are doing and are ready to do; this, in turn, gives us a sense both of our power and of our vulnerability to the risky reality of the physical world. Furthermore, the body’s ability to zero in on what is significant, and then preserve that understanding in our background awareness, enables us to perceive more and more refined situations and respond more and more skillfully; its sensitivity to mood opens up our shared social situation and makes people and things matter to us; and its tendency to respond positively to direct engagement with other bodies underlies our sense of trust and so sustains our interpersonal world. All this our body does so effortlessly, pervasively, and successfully that it is hardly noticed. That is why it is so easy to think that, thanks to telepresence, we could get along without it, and why it would, in fact, be impossible to do so.
Dreyfus is well-known for his work on artificial intelligence. In fact I’ve mentioned him three times before in this newsletter, when I was making the point that level 5 autonomous vehicles are not possible with current and foreseeable technology.
What does remote working have to do with artificial intelligence? What does philosophy have to do with both?
The answer is that a machine that possesses human-like intelligence would need to be able to find its way in the real world. So if we are to create such a machine, we need to ask the question: How do we find our way in the real world? If we know the answer we can then apply it to telepresence by examining which of our way-finding abilities are lost when we are behind a computer screen.
In any case, if you are one of the people struggling to understand the possibilities and limits of remote working and learning, the book is definitely worth a read.