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The Importance of Listening

Among the most frequent and positive comments that we receive from participants in our discussions is how much they enjoyed the opportunity to speak with their fellows citizens in depth:  both the opportunity to listen to what others had to say about a topic and also to be listened to by others. On this point, my spouse–and perhaps many others–might readily remark, “duh, now if you would only practice what you preach.” And, if I happened to be listening at that moment, I might well have to agree.

The importance of listening–in almost all human interactions–is by no means a new or seldom heard idea. We’re told repeatedly–in school, by a slew of popular self-help and business books, by counselors/advisers, loved ones, co-workers, and others–that we must really listen to what others are saying (both explicitly and, equally important, implicitly–or what they are “not saying”) if we are to understand others and successfully navigate our complex social world.

I was reminded, again, of this point by a cover story article from the March issue of the Atlantic magazine, Mind vs Machine by Brian Christian. While I found the article (like most Atlantic articles) too long and a bit meandering (kind of an embossed narrative of the author’s recent adventures in the world of artificial intelligence or “AI”), it eventually offered up a small gem. In noting that AI programs can now mimic or surpass human conversation in depth of knowledge or complexity and in the ongoing–and often unsuccessful–efforts to distinguish human intelligence from that of either animal or now machine, Mr. Christian wrote:

We so often think of intelligence . . . in terms of sophistication, or complexity of human behavior.  . . .  No, I think sophistication, complexity of behavior, is not it at all. For instance, you can’t judge the intelligence of an orator by the eloquence of his prepared remarks; you must wait until the Q&A and see how he fields questions. The computation theorist Hava Sieglemann once described intelligence as “a kind of sensitivity to things.” These [conversational computer] programs that hold forth may produce interesting output, but they’re rigid and inflexible. They are, in other words insensitive–occasionally fascinating talkers that cannot listen. (emphasis added)

He goes on to re-define “a healthier view of human intelligence” as not so much “complex and powerful, per se”–because computers increasingly beat us at chess and many other endeavors requiring complex logic and memory function– “as that it is reactive, responsive, sensitive, nimble.” In other words, humans are capable of empathy, of understanding both subtle and deep context, and of listening and responding to others (sometimes even appropriately or helpfully). Thus far, artificial intelligence programs are simply not good listeners.

Of course, listening is a skill (or perhaps an art) that we often struggle with as well. “Did you say I should pick the boys up from soccer at 5:30 or 6? Or, were you also saying, please, just pay attention for a minute or two?”