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Friday, October 30, 2015

Computers Alive? by Hoyt W. Huggins

Do computers facilitate, or do they control? How would you answer if you thought the computers were coming to life? Ponder the madness of computer intelligence in control of our vast network of communications, logistics, and weapon systems. Science fiction nonsense? But surely history is replete with science fiction "told-you-so's." Moreover, there have been hundreds of non-fiction works published over the past 20 years which seriously declare that computer consciousness is not only possible but likely.

With the possible exceptions of IBM and AT&T, the U.S. Air Force stands out like no other organization in its image of vast modern technology packed full of computers. Surely we should be the last to be unclear on this matter of machine intelligence--even for a discussion over a Friday beer at the club.

In hopes the reader will finish with at least a more comfortable answer to the first question, let us apply a cool but decidedly unmechanical approach to the issue.

One of the oldest computer jokes around tells of the latest IBM creation being fed the entire works of Saint Thomas Aquinas and then being asked, "Is there a God?" After a few tense seconds, a printout appears with the words, "There is now."

Despite its antiquity, this story serves well to keynote the eerie feelings that grip some of us as we learn of the amazing capabilities of today's computers. Moreover, the apprehension goes back further than the joke.

In the last century, English author Samuel Butler wrote "The Destruction of the Machines of Erewhon," foreshadowing serious consideration of machine life by many later experts. For most of us, this kind of speculation vaguely agitates our common sense, but few of us do more than shrug it off, and some of us believe it might actually be possible. As with many other subjects, we have become victims of our dependence on the "explanations" of the experts instead of masters of our own analyzing abilities.

This time, let's respond to our common sense, consult known scientific knowledge, examine the data, and get at the truth. We can begin by reviewing Butler's forebodings.

Butler feared that man would continue to evolve machines of increasing propensity for becoming living species. In fact, he wondered if they were already conscious, patiently plotting their evolutionary perfection and eventual domination of the world. If not, he was sure that one day man would produce a mutant having consciousness and independence. Moreover, he implied that the machine's consciousness would spring into being--like Pallas Athena, fully panoplied--with a value system underpinned by self- survival. You see, Butler's machines would just naturally view man as both enemy and servant: a threat to survival, yet essential to it. The machines would therefore ruthlessly conquer and mercilessly control mankind, that is, unless the hapless victims acted quickly to destroy all machines.

Butler quite obviously did not understand the concept consciousness. Just as obviously, he did not understand the conceptualization process required for extending the primitive survival instinct to the abstraction threat. Let us deal first with the latter.

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