The ability to argue, to express our reasoning to others, is one of the defining features of what it is to be human.
Argument and debate form the cornerstones of civilised society and intellectual life. Processes of argumentation run our governments, structure scientific endeavour and frame religious belief. So should we worry that new advances in are taking steps towards equipping computers with these skills?
As technology reshapes our lives, we are all getting used to new ways of working and new ways of interacting. Millennials have known nothing else. Governments and judiciaries are waking up to the potential offered by technology for engaging citizens in democratic and legal processes. Some politicians, individually, are more ahead of the game in understanding the enormous role that social media plays in election processes. But there are profound challenges.
One is nicely set out by Upworthy CEO Eli Pariser in his TED talk. In it he explains how we are starting to live in “filter bubbles”: what you see when you search a given term on Google is not necessarily the same as what I see when I search the same term. Media organisations from Fox News to, most recently, the BBC, are personalising content, with ID and login being used to select which stories are featured most prominently. The result is that we risk locking ourselves into echo chambers of like-minded individuals while our arguments become more one-sided, less balanced and less understanding of other viewpoints.
Why critical thinking is critical
Another concern is the way in which news and information, though ever more voluminous, is becoming ever less reliable – accusations and counter-accusations of “ fake news ” are now commonplace. In the face of such challenges, skills of critical thinking are more vital now than they have ever been – the ability to judge and assess evidence quickly and efficiently, to step outside our echo chamber and think about things from alternative points of view, to integrate information, often in teams, balance arguments on either side and reach robust, defensible conclusions. These are the skills of argument that have been the subject of academic research in philosophy for more than 2,000 years, since Aristotle. […]