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On Tom Friedman, cognitive computers, and what Trump has done to us

This is what a certain occupant of the White House has done to us, and, in this, case by “us” I mean those of us who scribble about politics.

Thomas Friedman, the Minnesota boy made good and longtime New York Times columnist, wanted to write a column about the rise and future of the “cognitive computer,” like Watson, the IBM computer that defeated all-time champ Ken Jennings on Jeopardy in 2013.

Friedman’s latest column isn’t about President Trump. Not even slightly. Except that Friedman felt he had to start the column by apologizing for and explaining why the column wasn’t about Trump.

Here’s Friedman’s first paragraph (after which he doesn’t mention Trump again until his last paragraph):

Donald Trump poses a huge dilemma for commentators: to ignore his daily outrages is to normalize his behavior, but to constantly write about them is to stop learning. Like others, I struggle to get this balance right, which is why I pause today to point out some incredible technological changes happening while Trump has kept us focused on him — changes that will pose as big an adaptation challenge to American workers as transitioning from farms to factories once did.

After that, Friedman proceeds to make his argument about the change of epic proportions that “cognitive computing” will bring to the next generation:

Quantum computers process information, using the capabilities of quantum physics, differently from traditional computers. “Whereas normal computers store information as either a 1 or a 0, quantum computers exploit two phenomena — entanglement and superposition — to process information,” explains MIT Technology Review. The result is computers that may one day “operate 100,000 times faster than they do today,” adds Wired magazine.

I have no thoughts on how big a deal “cognitive computing” will turn out to be. I suppose possible future impact might be affected by whether Trump, who has repeatedly asked why he can’t use nuclear weapons, can get through his incumbency without destroying the world.

But that, of course, only underlines Friedman’s tragicomic first paragraph. After laying out his facts and arguments about the quantum computers, he ends with this apology, which brings him back to where he started:

Anyway, I didn’t mean to distract from the “Trump Reality Show,” but I just thought I’d mention that Star Wars technology is coming not only to a theater near you, but to a job near you. We need to be discussing and adapting to its implications as much as we do Trump’s tweets.

Comments (20)

  1. Submitted by Curtis Senker on 01/17/2018 - 06:56 pm.

    It was about computers. Do you weigh the value of everything you read by how vociferously Trump is condemned?

    I don’t think we realize just how deeply disturbed leftists have become, but I’m newly amazed every day. Yikes.

    • Submitted by ian wade on 01/18/2018 - 12:38 pm.

      I know what you mean, Curtis.

      I’ll bet these disturbed leftists are going to accuse him of being a secret Muslim, usurper and demand investigations into his birthplace any day now.

      • Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 01/18/2018 - 10:28 pm.

        The leftists have accused him of being secret fascist and dictator, and demanded investigation into his collusion with Putin…

        • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 01/19/2018 - 10:39 am.


          There is credible evidence that the Putin regime was illegally involved in the US election campaign, and its involvement was to benefit Trump. Do you not think the issue of whether there was collusion, or whether they acted independently, merits investigation?

          “The leftists have accused him of being secret fascist and dictator . . .” He’s not quite at either one yet, but he’ certainly is not doing it in secret.

        • Submitted by ian wade on 01/19/2018 - 01:04 pm.


          with a lot more smoke than the birth certificate fiasco.
          Thanks for playing…

  2. Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 01/17/2018 - 10:11 pm.

    I agree – it’s sad that the media is obsessed with Trump’s tweets 24/7 and should apologize for talking about something else. Of course, this is not Trump’s fault but the media’s which jumps every time Trump chooses to say “jump.”

    • Submitted by Nick Foreman on 01/18/2018 - 11:07 pm.

      Not obsessed; just shocked about the continued stupidity

      Of the comments. Never know when he will proceed to start a nuclear war with a tweet

  3. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 01/18/2018 - 08:30 am.

    True–the two biggest disruptors of the current “American way” are coming down the track–climate change and artificial intelligence. They’re coming in a time where legislative reverence for plutocratic preference and proletarian control is being embedded into law and policy.

    Hmm, what could happen in the next couple of decades when a majority of jobs can be replaced with human-less systems ? I wonder who will feel the pinch–the 99% or the 1% ? A puzzle for the ages…

    Hmm, what happens when the effects of climate change come, who will best be able to shelter their lives from the most immediate effects–the 99% or the 1% ? Another puzzle for the ages…

    The time of general discontent is coming and the 1% are building their treasury and legislative ramparts.

  4. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 01/18/2018 - 09:48 am.

    The bright, shiny object

    I can only sort-of agree with Messrs. Senker and Gutman. It does appear that the media, including print, television, web-based, and whatever other platforms there are out there, including smart phones, are generally obsessed with Trump. I don’t remember the last day that passed without at least some mention of the Current Occupant’s demeanor, attitude, statement(s) or actions.

    In large part, I don’t regard this as evidence that “leftists,” whoever they might be, are “disturbed.” Humans, being, after all, biological critters like lots of others on the planet, are hard-wired to pay attention to bright, shiny objects, at least for a little while. We’re easily distracted, and numerous studies of “multi-tasking” have shown that, in fact, humans don’t really do a very good job of “multi-tasking.” We’re able to shift attention back and forth between phenomena at a rapid pace, but doing so diminishes our performance of whatever task it was we were trying to accomplish in the first place.

    The Current Occupant is merely an especially large bright, shining, object. Because he’s not very well educated, daily displays his amorality, and in general has the demeanor of a small child who’s been spoiled, it’s pretty easy for the media – and the general public – to become fixated on his numerous shortcomings. We’ve never had a president who so routinely and blithely ignored or actively subverted norms of decorum and empathy that – Mr. Senker and Mr. Gutman apparently excepted – the public in general has come to expect from the nation’s chief executive.

    My “sort-of” agreement with Messrs. Senker and Gutman is in quotes because I do think “the media,” mainstream and otherwise, devote far too much attention to a man who is obviously ignorant, misogynist, racist, and in numerous other ways fairly reprehensible. We knew this about him before the election, and – to their shame, in my view – millions of people voted for him anyway. If he were still a dishonest real estate developer, he wouldn’t be worth a single line of type on a front page.

    But, of course, he’s not just an insecure old man. He’s been given an office with more power and influence than any of the people reading this are likely to ever have. My concern – and I’ve seen this expressed elsewhere, as well – is that, while so many of those in the media are focused on that bright, shiny object, the Republican Party is quietly, and with the help of the Current Occupant, doing its best to drag the nation from the 21st century back to the 19th, or even earlier, by dismantling not only the social and economic safety net for American citizens, but environmental, financial, political and other protections that help keep the country viable as at least a semblance of a modern democratic society. Personally, I’d like to see far more attention being paid to the damage that Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell have wreaked upon the country than is currently being paid to how often the Current Occupant plays golf.

    My current theory, subject to revision, is that an improving economy, for which the Current Occupant tries to take credit where little is due, in keeping with his insecurity, tends to subvert ethical and other concerns. If the markets crash and lose 30% of their value overnight, the public will be much more interested in misdeeds of the current administration and its sycophants. Unless and until then, prosperity pretty much trumps (pun intended) ethics concerns. Perhaps November of this year will prove me wrong, or perhaps not.

    • Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 01/18/2018 - 10:27 pm.

      I can sort of agree that Trump is indeed a shiny bright object and the media can’t take its collective eyes off him. I also agree that Trump has “actively subverted norms of decorum” but so what? It’s the deeds that count and so far he has been fulfilling his promises that he was elected to fulfill. He is changing things quickly, as you have noticed, and his tweets are just a distraction (and I don’t know intentional or not). I just don’t mind if it takes us back because I don’t want to go forward if the future is like in Europe where real right-wing forces get more and more influence.. On the other hand, however much I dislike those tweets and many other aspects of Trump’s behavior, there is no evidence that he is racist, misogynist, and so on.

  5. Submitted by RB Holbrook on 01/18/2018 - 10:04 am.

    “A Cabdriver in Bangalore Told Me . . .”

    There is a lot to be said about quantum computing. There could be a cogent explanation of how it works, and how it differs from the computing we use now. One could also write something interesting and pertinent about its possible economic impact. It’s an interesting subject that merits exploration.

    None of this requires a mention of President Trump, unless he really is doing something either to promote or impede it.

  6. Submitted by jim hughes on 01/18/2018 - 02:42 pm.

    infinite regress

    While I agree with the point made by this article, I also note that it’s coverage of coverage of the coverage… of Trump.

  7. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 01/18/2018 - 03:11 pm.

    Let’s all take a breath: Trump issues daily lots of dumb tweets that no one pays attention to. He’s a short-burst, one-way-only (no replies) kind of communicator.

    We only pay attention to those tweets that are most outrageous and most dangerous to our democracy.

    There are lots of those, of course, because there is nothing but surface to Donald Trump himself: He is terribly ignorant of most of what pertains to his job, particularly policy issues (Note Kelly, the ex-military man who is tutoring the President on policy so he doesn’t come across as so ignorant about stuff like border walls). So when he demeans the office in an egregious way, people, including the media pay attention. We can’t let him debase the United States without a protesting comment, without investigation into the level and degree of truth in what he tweets, and then correct him.

    Trump demands attention. Like a bratty little kid who disrupts somebody else’s birthday party with his shenanigans or throws a tantrum in the supermarket because he knows it drives his mother to distraction and angry tears, Trump relishes our collective dismay with him. (Note: he called around to his friends last week, bragging about having used the gutter vulgarity “shithole” to describe
    African countries at an official meeting with Congressional figures on immigration). If he doesn’t get enough public attention, he ups the ante and starts throwing obscenities around and threatening nuclear war.

    There is a balance to be struck in the media between following Trump’s violations of public decency and other happenings in the world. But we cannot let this man bring the whole of public discourse and policy debates down to his level, where everything is a reflection of himself and language is like that used by the drunk at the end of he bar.

    He has to be reminded constantly that most of us are definitely NOT in his corner.

    • Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 01/18/2018 - 10:25 pm.

      “Trump demands attention. Like a bratty little kid who disrupts somebody else’s birthday party.” Maybe but what is the best way of dealing with those bratty kids? Ignore them!

      • Submitted by Arthur Swenson on 01/23/2018 - 04:08 pm.

        Bratty Little Kid

        It’s hard to ignore the bratty little kid when he has climbed up on a chair so he could reach the china cupboard, and is throwing the crystal wine glasses on the floor.

  8. Submitted by Edward Blaise on 01/18/2018 - 11:41 pm.

    Any press is good press….

    And the omnipresent image of our supreme leader on an unrelenting, daily basis is no different than the men he strives to emulate: Vladimir Putin and Kim Jung Un. Their press is universally good press, free of all that nasty fake news, their elections are free of uncertainty and doubt, and best of all, they both are considerably richer them Mr. Trump: Putin at an estimated 200 Billion an Un at a little over 5 Billion. He’ll soon be humming:

    Well I’m movin on up, To the east side.
    To a deluxe apartment in the sky.
    Movin on up
    To the east side.
    I finally got a piece of the pie…

    • Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 01/19/2018 - 10:49 am.

      Let’s just hope that that “deluxe apartment in the sky” isn’t a Trump property, where your next-door neighbor might very well be a member of the Russian mafia who bought his digs with many millions of dollars of illegally-gotten funds that he’s laundered with Trump.

      Anyone following the news (including the two transcripts of Simpson’s sworn testimony before Congressional committees, where there are descriptions of breath-taking ties between Trump’s business dealings and Putin friends among the post-Soviet kleptocracy–I use Simpson’s word there) knows that this is an instance where Trump is desperately hoping that no one “follows the money.” He’s rather we paid attention to his tweets. If I were him, I would, too!

  9. Submitted by Bill McKinney on 01/23/2018 - 12:40 pm.

    What if…

    Very soon it will be pretty easy to teach a quantum computing supported bot to “read” and “comment” on articles like this. It could ingest millions of comments from millions of articles then create comment “debates” like this one that make it look like all kinds of people are involved. Based on what “real” people comment back and how angry their comments are it could get smarter and smarter about stirring up ACTUAL anger, rage, hate, etc. among the population of humans.

    What’s not in dispute is that this is essentially what the Russians did with humans with the “news” articles they placed through Facebook in the US election and the UK Brexit vote. They got real live people riled up and even got them to physically show up for protests (on both sides) that were essentially fabricated out of whole cloth by someone in Moscow (or Kiev or wherever). To me this is a super interesting intersection of these two topics. The fascinating question is whether we (the actual humans) will be able to tell the difference between debating/trolling a person and a super-intelligent bot controlled by someone with who knows what intentions.

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