But today's article about computer scientists seems to me to fly directly into the face of empirical evidence also reported today by Jonah Lehrer:
The psychologists conducted their experiments on four and five-year-olds, so they had to be pretty simple. Sixty kids were shown a boxy toy that played music when beads were placed on it. Half of the children saw a version of the toy in which the toy was only activated after four beads were exactingly placed, one at a time, on the top of the toy. This was the “unambiguous condition,” since it implied every bead is equally capable of activating the device. However, other children were randomly assigned to an “ambiguous condition,” in which only two of the four beads activated the toy. (The other two beads did nothing.) In both conditions, the researchers ended their demo with a question: “Wow, look at that. I wonder what makes the machine go?”
Next came the exploratory phase of the study. The children were given two pairs of new beads. One of the pairs was fixed together permanently. The other pair could be snapped apart. They had one minute to play.
Here’s where the ambiguity made all the difference. Children who’d seen that all beads activate the toy were far less likely to bother snapping apart the snappable bead pair. As a result, they were unable to figure out which beads activated the toy. (In fact, just one out of twenty children in that condition bothered performing the so-called “experiment”.) By contrast, nearly fifty percent of children in the ambiguous condition snapped apart the beads and attempted to learn which specific beads were capable of activating the toy. The uncertainty inspired their empiricism.
The point here, is that what the robot lacks is curiosity. It doesn't go out and look for answers. It isn't "interested" in solving problems. Maybe if I asked the future super-powered scientist/robot of Manjoo's article to "explain climate change" it would chug away at climate data for a few weeks and then barf out an explanation, God be praised. But it doesn't sit there, in a lab, and suddenly think to itself "I wonder how climate change works?" And because of that, a sentient scientist will always be required. Maybe in the future scientists will become more like philosophers, and spend more time ruminating and coming up with questions. Then they'll hand the question over to the supercomputer, it'll go all Wolfram Alpha, and then the scientists can get busy trying to sort out the implications of the answer. Less lab book time and more time for creative thinking won't diminish the work of scientists, it will elevate it. Because its not like 350 years ago scientists said "I don't understand this gravity thing" and then Newton explained it and they all threw up their hands and declared their careers obsolete and went and became plumbers. Asking questions, finding an answer, then asking more questions based on that answer is the fundamental scientific process of humanity, and until we have a computer that can embrace ambiguity and synthesize its own curiosity...human scientists will remain pivotal...regardless of how quickly a computer can derive equations.