In short, we are engaged in a permanent dance with machines, locked in an increasingly dependent embrace. And yet, because the bots’ behavior isn’t based on human thought processes, we are often powerless to explain their actions. Wolfram Alpha, the website created by scientist Stephen Wolfram, can solve many mathematical problems. It also seems to display how those answers are derived. But the logical steps that humans see are completely different from the website’s actual calculations. “It doesn’t do any of that reasoning,” Wolfram says. “Those steps are pure fake. We thought, how can we explain this to one of those humans out there?”
The lesson is that our computers sometimes have to humor us, or they will freak us out. Eric Horvitz—now a top Microsoft researcher and a former president of the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence—helped build an AI system in the 1980s to aid pathologists in their studies, analyzing each result and suggesting the next test to perform. There was just one problem—it provided the answers too quickly. “We found that people trusted it more if we added a delay loop with a flashing light, as though it were huffing and puffing to come up with an answer,” Horvitz says.