Thinking about thinking machines. Tom Stonier.
In the course of history, human ingenuity has created many a wondrous device. None so marvelous, however, as the computer.
In that long road of human technology which, among other things, flaked stone; mastered fire; developed speech; domesticated plants and animals; forged bronze created those great ancient civilizations and all the technology needed for them; invented Francis Bacon's famous trio--gun-powder, the compass, and thr printing press -- and then moved onwards to fashion the steam engine, balloons, factories, railways, steel, electricity, telephones, horseless carriages, airplanes, rockets, radio and television, and atomic energy, not to mention the myriad of less dramatic but frequently equally significant artifacts such as the stirrup, the nail, and the photovoltaic cell, in that long road, no invention will prove to be as profound as the computer.
Mastering the electron was as important as mastering fire. However, in only a matter of decades, exponentially growing electronic technology culminated in circuitry of such complexity as to create thought machines--machines that could manipulate information in a way previously possible only inside the human brain. The dreams of Babbage and other pioneers had come true.
These thought machines, computers, and their ancillary technology are propelling humanity into a new historical epoch. This article will look at the emergence of the computer in relation to four previous discontinuities: the Industrial Revolution, the Neolithic Revolution, the Hominid Revolution, and the Biological Revolution. The Industrial Revolution
The Industrial Revolution initially centered on the steam engine and ancillary technology which mechanized the modes of production. The steam-driven factory system, in turn, resulted in urbanization and produced a profound shift in lifestyle. The steam engine represented an extension of the human musculature. A man with a steam engine could accomplish mighty tasks which were literally superhuman.
Similarly, the computer allows us to perform mathematical tasks which are superhuman. It can also perform simpler tasks such as deciding when a particular piece of machinery should be turned on or off, or in what particular plane a piece of metal should be drilled. Thus, the modes of production are changing once again--this time as a result of automation and the increasing use of robots.
Steam technology shifted Western economies from agricultural to industrial. Information technology is now shifting these same economies from industrial to information centered. The introduction of the computer into productive processes is therefore at least as profound as the Industrial Revolution. The Neolithic Revolution
The Neolithic Revolution involved the domestication of plants and animals. To tend crops, one had to stay put, the introduction of farming technology meant that our hunter-gatherer forebears had to adopt an entirely new, sedentary lifestyle.
The computer has not only entered the work place, it has also entered the home. An increasing number of people are beginning to make their homes their work stations as information/communications technology permits working via telephone, facsimile, and satellite links. In addition, the computer will assure a dramatic shift in the way we educate our children.
The computer represents the first genuine revolution in education in more than a century. A century ago, there was a move to mass education, to get away from education for the elite only. That was a genuine revolution. However, the classroom of today is merely an extension of the Victorian classroom. Cheap home computers, coupled with the flood of good educational software which will emerge during the 1980s, will change all that.
The efficiency of computer-based education will become evident in years to come. Most of the traditional information skills, such as reading, writing, and arithmetic, will be learned in the home. So will introductory levels of a wide range of scientific, sociological, and humanistic disciplines.
The function of the primary schools will be to encourage children to play with other children, to engage in sports, to work with machinery, to go on field trips, in short, to learn social and physical skills. At the secondary school level, the function of the teacher will be to help the student explore knowledge. Teachers and students will enter into a relationship of colleague and junior colleague; the teacher will act as a knowledge counselor or information guide. Most of the pupil's time and energy will be spent on projects of his own choosing.
The computer has already established itself in the home as a source of recreation and entertainment. In the future, it will be used for electronic funds transfer; tele-shopping; cooking; controlling light, heat, sound, and other systems; and as discussed above, for work and education. The nature of the home will change substantially. Unlike the steam engine, the computer is entering the home directly. The Computer Revolution is therefore at least as significant as the Neolithic Revolution. The Hominid Revolution
The presence of the computer in the home and the emergence of home-based education, will have a further impact. Boys playing football, girls jumping rope for vice versa), games, parties, and discos--these are all fun. We have overlooked the enormous educational value of these activities in teaching both physical and social skills. In contrast, our Victorian Puritanism has made learning intellectual skills, most of the time, into an onerous task. The computer will reintroduce fun into the process of learning.
The high motivational state induced in children working with good educational software coupled with the emergence of a global network of databases which allow the child access to information with unprecedented ease, must have an impact on the understanding children develop of the world they live in, and for that matter, on their understanding of themselves.
Furthermore, children encouraged to write their own programs will develop intellectual skills of precision, logic, a systematic and orderly fashion for producing work, and a much more sophisticated approach to the methods for solving problems. The cumulative improvements in intellectual skills coupled with their markedly expanded understanding of the world, will differentiate such children almost to the extent of being a new sub-species: Homo sapiens cerebrus or some such.
The matter is analogous to a situation several million years ago, when our pre-human hominid ancestors began to use weapons, both to ward off predators and to subdue prey. That earliest of all technological revolutions differentiated the hominid stock from the rest of the primates. The hominids were able to extend their econiche to hunting large game. In due course, as they mastered fire, they were able to extend their geographic range more successfully than any other primate. In human history, it was always those who were able to develop and use new technologies adroitly who in the long run not only survived better, but came to dominate the others.
Homo sapiens cerebrus will survive, prosper, and in due course dominate all those who do not partake of the new intellectual technology. Among higher organisms, new behavior patterns rather than new anatomical features set the stage for new patterns of evolution. The computer is setting the stage for a revolution as profound as the hominid revolution of so long ago. The Biological Revolution
Lastly, we must look at the full implication of having created thought machines. For although there is an enormous resistance to the idea that computers can think, in fact, we have created devices that are able to carry out intellectual tasks previously carried out only inside our own heads. It is true that many of these operations reflect only some single capacity, but then, if one looks at mathematical capabilities, for example, the thought machines of our creation are able to work way beyond human capabilities.
Sooner or later, as we learn more and more about the functioning of the human mind and its capacity to manipulate information, we will be able to extend computers to cover all mental faculties in a similar manner. This will include the ability to deal with complex issues whether they be of the economy, of human relations, of the intellect, or of our emotional make-up.
This is a devastating blow to our ego. It is at least as bad as discovering that the earth is not the center of the universe, or that we are descended from animals. The last bastion of human egocentrism is that we can understand things better than anyone or anything else.
We are in for a rude shock. We have initiated an irreversible historical process of creating machines more intelligent than we. Primitive though this machine intelligence may be at the moment, it would be the height of blindness not to see how, over the next few decades, centuries, or if need be, millenia, these machines will have their information manipulating functions improved way beyond their present capability and way beyond human capabilities.
No steam enging ever designed another steam engine. Computers, on the other hand, are used to help design the next generation of computers. As both the circuitry and the algorithms become more and more complex, will there not come a time when the computer first surpasses, then no longer requires the intervention of humans in order to achieve replication?
Creative Computing is celebrating its first decade. Electronic computers are only about four decades old, and microprocessors half that age. Biochips have not yet been invented. Not to envision self-replicating thing machines is like looking at an airplane in 1910 and proclaiming it will never reach the moon. The question is not whether machine intelligence will surpass human intelligence at some future time, but what will be the relationship between human and machine intelligence.
Three billion years ago, in that primordial, organic soup which covered the surface of this planet, this part of the universe developed the new form of organization of matter and energy that we call Life. The precursor to life was the emergence of complex, self replicating molecules. The question that one might reasonably ask in 1984 is whether the combination of two unique phenomena: human society and thinking machines, might not set the stage for the next step in the evolution of this part of the universe from Life to Intelligence. Might not the emergence of machine intelligence with in human societies be as important in the near future, as was the emergence of complex self-replicating molecules within that primordial slime in that distant past?
Many people will shrink from this possibility in horror. The implications are that humanity has begun to evolve beyond humanity! It is not an unnatural reaction to wish not to move into the unknown. There is no reason, in fact, why we should move into it in a hurry. However, not to move forward is equally fallacious.
Along that long road of technological evolution, the human condition steadily improved. Even if, like fire, technology always posed a threat as well as a blessing, we never stopped, nor turned back. One of the earliest commentators on the computer revolution was the late Chris Evans. In his lifetime, he saw a great deal of what was fiction--science fiction--turn into reality. Men walked on the moon, robots emerged . . . In his book The Mighty Micro, he reviewed Alexander Korda's movie version of H. G. Wells's Things to Come. In pointing to the moral of Korda's film, he provided us with the guideline we must follow:
". . . once man has taken the first step down the path of knowledge and understanding, he must take all those that follow. The alternative is to do nothing, to live with the insects in the dust . . ." Amen.