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Wise machines?

Colin Allen (Department of History & Philosophy of Science and Program in Cognitive Science, Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana, USA)
Wendell Wallach (Interdisciplinary Center for Bioethics, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut, USA)

On the Horizon

ISSN: 1074-8121

Article publication date: 27 September 2011




In spite of highly publicized competitions where computers have prevailed over humans, the intelligence of computer systems still remains quite limited in comparison to that of humans. Present day computers provide plenty of information but lack wisdom. The purpose of this paper is to investigate whether reliance on computers with limited intelligence might undermine the quality of the education students receive.


Using a conceptual approach, the authors take the performance of IBM's Watson computer against human quiz competitors as a starting point to explore how society, and especially education, might change in the future when everyone has access to desktop technology to access information. They explore the issue of placing excessive trust in such machines without the capacity to evaluate the quality and reliability of the information provided.


The authors find that the day when computing machines surpass human intelligence is much further in the future than predicted by some forecasters. Addressing the problem of dependency on information technology, they envisage a technical solution ‐ wiser machines which not only return the search results, but also help make them comprehensible ‐ but find that although it is relatively simple to engineer knowledge distribution and access, it is more difficult to engineer wisdom.

Practical implications

Creating computers that are wise will be difficult, but educating students to be wise in the age of computers may also be quite difficult. For the future, one might explore the development of computer tools that demonstrate sensitivity to alternative answers to difficult questions, different courses of action, and their own limitations. For the present, one will need to train students to appreciate the limitations inherent in the technologies on which they have become dependent.


Critical thinking, innovation, and wisdom require skills beyond the kinds of answers computers give now or are likely to provide in the coming decade.



Allen, C. and Wallach, W. (2011), "Wise machines?", On the Horizon, Vol. 19 No. 4, pp. 251-258.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2011, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

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