roger_schank's picture
CEO, Socratic Arts Inc.; John Evans Professor Emeritus of Computer Science, Psychology and Education, Northwestern University; Author, Make School Meaningful-And Fun!

An executive of a consumer products company who I know was worrying about how to make the bleach his company produces better. He thought it would be nice if the bleach didn't cause "collateral damage." That is, he wanted it to harm bad stuff without harming good stuff. He seized upon the notion of collateral damage and began to wonder where else collateral damage was a problem. Chemotherapy came to mind and he visited some oncologists who gave him some ideas about what they did to make chemotherapy less harmful tp patients. He then applied those same ideas to improve his company's bleach.

He began to wonder about what he had done and how he had done it. He wanted to be able to do this sort of thing again. But what is this sort of thing and how can one do it again?

In bygone days we lived in groups that had wise men (and women) who told stories to younger people if they thought that those stories might be relevant to their needs. This was called wisdom and teaching and it served as way of passing one generation's experiences to the next.

We have lost this ability to some extent because we live in a much larger world, where the experts are not likely to be in the next cave over and where there is a lot more to have expertise about. Nevertheless, we, as humans, are set up to deliver and make use of just in time wisdom. We just aren't that sure where to find it. We have created books, and schools, and now search engines to replace what we have lost. Still it would be nice if there was wisdom to be had without having to look hard to find it.

Those days of just in time storytelling will return. The storyteller will be your computer. The computers we have today are capable of understanding your needs and finding just the right (previously archived and indexed) wise man (or woman) to tell you a story, just when you need it, that will help you think something out. Some work needs to be done to make this happen of course.

No more looking for information. No more libraries. No more key words. No more search engines.

Information will find you, and just in the nick of time. And this will "change everything."

You are seeing the beginning of this today, but it is being done in a mindless and commercial way, led of course by Google ads that watch the words you type and match them to ads they have written that contain those words. (I receive endless offers of on line degrees, for example, because that is what I often write about.) Three things will change:

1. The information that finds you will be relevant and important to what you are working on and will arrive just in time.
2. The size of information will change. No more books-worth amount of information (book size is an artifact of what length books sells—there are no ten page books.)
3. A new form of publishing will arrive that serves to vet the information you receive. Experts will be interviewed and their best stories will be indexed. Those stories will live forever waiting for someone to tell them to at the right moment.

In the world that I am describing the computer has to know what you are trying to accomplish, not what words you just typed, and it needs to have an enormous archive of stories to tell you. Additionally it needs to have indexed all the stories it has in its archives to activities you are working on in such a way that the right story comes up at the right time.

What needs to happen to make this a reality? Computers need an activity model. They need to know what you are doing and why. As software becomes more complex and more responsible for what we do in our daily lives, this state of affairs is inevitable.

An archive needs to be created that has all the wisdom of the world in it. People have sought to do this for years, in the form of encyclopedias and such, but they have failed to do what was necessary to make those encyclopedias useful. There is too much in a typical encyclopedia entry, not to mention the absurd amount of information in a book. People are set up to hear stories and stories don't last all that long before we lose our ability to concentrate on their main point, their inherent wisdom, if you will. People tell each other stores all the time, but when they write or lecture they are permitted (or encouraged) to go on way too long (as I am doing now.)

Wisdom depends upon goal directed prompts that say what to do when certain conditions are encountered. To put this another way, an archive of key strategic ideas about how to achieve goals under certain conditions is just the right resource to be interacting with enabling a good story to pop up when you need it. The solution involves goal-directed indexing. Ideas such a "collateral damage" are indices to knowledge. We are not far from the point where computers will be able to recognize collateral damage when it happens and find other examples that help you think something out.

Having a "reminding machine" that gets reminding of universal wisdom as needed will indeed change everything. We will all become much more likely to profit from humanity's collective wisdom by having a computer at the ready to help us think.