“Mysteries abound where most we seek for answers.” – Ray Bradbury
There are good mysteries and bad mysteries. If you are relaxing next to the pool with a best-selling mystery novel, that’s good. If your doctor is baffled by your “mysterious” symptoms, that’s bad. Puzzling mysteries can be challenging, frustrating, or even concerning. Since the beginning of time, mankind has been intrigued by mysteries. All the while, science has relentlessly pursued explanations, the purpose of which is to eliminate mysteries.
Magic - the kind that’s performed by a magician - trades on our fascination with mysterious things – pulling a rabbit out of a hat or sawing an assistant in half. One of my personal favorites is the up-close, sleight-of-hand magic that relies on technique and distraction. In many cases, I know what the magician must have done, but he does it so well that it still has a pleasantly mysterious feel to it.
Science fiction literature, another personal favorite, often creates mystery by flirting with the boundary between plausible fantasy and reality. Prolific science fiction writer and futurist Arthur C. Clarke is known for his Third Law, which says that “Any technology sufficiently advanced is indistinguishable from magic.” Sir Arthur passed away in 2008, but his Third Law has never been more relevant.
In this sense, my smartphone is a bit of a magician too. As an engineer, I have a basic understanding of what it must be doing, but sometimes it mystifies me just how well it does it. Part of the magic is its ability to summon up a search engine and obtain information on just about any subject. I have the option of thumbing in my question, or merely asking Siri to look it up for me. It feels like I have all the world’s libraries in my pocket, along with the technology to cut straight to the information I want.
It’s hard to argue with instant gratification like this. Many of today’s students have grown up using search engines, with little or no idea of how these tools work. Worse still, machine learning is approaching the point where even those who wrote the code aren’t entirely sure what’s going on. Like a magician sawing a lady in half, there are hidden mechanisms at work.
At the core, search engine magic is built on citation – sources cited by other frequently cited sources get preferred treatment. I can’t help but think of my high school gossip mill, where the whispered rumors – particularly those from recognized “in-the-know” sources – quickly spread and gained credibility. Fake news aimed at a particular cognitive bias can swiftly go viral, resulting in an upgrade to the search engine ranking.
In some ways, we are our own worst enemies when it comes to using search engines. When our daughter was pursuing her RN, I often searched for related information - training programs, tuition, accreditation, job prospects, starting salaries and so on. Search engines took note, and regularly remind me that I could become an RN myself with a quick and easy online degree. The magic isn’t always this obvious, and I am still trying to understand why all these single black Jewish women are so eager to meet me.
Business success in SE-land often depends on showing up on the first page of search results. Regardless of the algorithm used to guess at my preferences, there will be coders out there trying to game it. Euphemistically called “search engine optimization” (SEO), this practice has the power to indiscriminately improve rankings of products, services or special interest groups.
For the search engine generation, there is little motivation to learn facts - they are always at our thumb tips. As a result, we plunge deeper into the Dunning-Kruger trap – the mysterious tendency for people who are generally ignorant of a subject to be clueless about how little they actually know. How we get our information is becoming more mysterious, while the apps and algorithms that provide it embolden us with a feeling of mastery. We truly do live in magical times.
Paul W. Smith, a Founder and Director of Engineering with INVENtPM LLC, has more than 40 years of experience in research and advanced product development. Prior to founding INVENtPM, Dr. Smith spent 10 years with Seagate Technology in Longmont, Colorado. At Seagate, he was primarily responsible for evaluating new data storage technologies under development throughout the company, and utilizing six-sigma processes to stage them for implementation in early engineering models. He is a former Adjunct Professor of Mechanical Engineering at the Colorado School of Mines, and currently manages the website “Technology for the Journey”.
Paul holds a doctorate in Applied Mechanics from the California Institute of Technology, as well as Bachelor’s and Master’s Degrees in Mechanical Engineering from the University of California, Santa Barbara.