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October 8, 1997updated 03 Sep 2016 7:45pm


By CBR Staff Writer

What a curious little book Slaves Of The Machine, by Gregory J. E. Rawlins (the MIT Press) is. For anyone who knows anything about computers, the history of artificial intelligence, and high-school evolutionary theory – which would cover the overwhelming majority of subscribers to this newsletter – nearly all of the slim (127 pages) volume will only tell them what they already know (only too well). In fact, to save yourself $25, you could pick the book up in your local bookstore and cut straight to the bottom of page 123, and just read the last four pages. The curious thing is that those four pages are very interesting indeed, and worth the trouble (it’s up to you to decide if that trouble is worth $25). The preceding 123 pages are, to be fair, well written, literate (not every Associate Professor of Computer Science – Rawlins teaches at Indiana University, Bloomington – would scatter insightful quotes and section headings from Paul Valery, James Baldwin, Alexis de Tocqueville, Martin Luther King, Jr, Edsger Dijkstra or Ludwig Wittgenstein) and informative.

By Gary Flood

The problem is that Rawlins uses a lot of space to back up his argument – space that might have been better used on the core argument itself. Very carefully – and often wittily and aptly – he tells us the history of computers (Silicon, I knew from science class, was the main ingredient of rocks and sand. So how could a rock think?), from Babbage to Turing on up to the present time, taking detours to explain what a programming language is, what software development is all about, what Moore’s Law is and what it means, and so forth. We occasionally get glimpses of where the argument is headed – Today the computer is a blind, deaf, mute, unfeeling flatworm. One day, though, perhaps sooner than you think, it may walk amongst us. It will be more alien than anything we can ever imagine. So what will our future be? Wonderful and terrifying.) – but then we have to let him ever so carefully describe the arguments for software engineering, or what have you. Agreed, for the presumed layman, all this may well be new and truly radical stuff. There probably still are folks who will be stunned to hear this: Computer programming has improved a lot over the past fifty years, yes; but the improvement is largely because of major hardware changes. Whereas hardware keeps leapfrogging ahead every eighteen months, software is still lost in the dark ages of the 1960s. Programming is still far too hard. Why don’t our computers notice the context of a current piece of work and act appropriately. Why do they make it so easy for us to flounder? Why don’t they adapt to us as we use them? In brief, after fifty years of development, why are our computers still so stupid? And there are (admittedly) probably a fairly large group of us who off the top of our heads can’t remember why German mathematician Hilbert is important (clue: it’s to do with the attempt to evade paradoxes by making mathematics a completely abstract deductive process), or why Goedel is to computers what Heisenberg is to physics (bottom line: if you think you’re right, you’re already wrong), or why Turing’s post-afternoon jog think sesh on the banks of the river Cam in 1935 about what a universal machine would be like (yeah, the counters and the infinite tape thing again) is a big deal. But given that most newspapers and mainstream magazines, let alone TV, contain a large amount of computer-related material these days (think about how the world has changed when the Sun Microsystems-Microsoft Corp legal battle over Java makes the front page of the online version of the UK’s venerable national The Daily Telegraph!), how many people really need to be told all this stuff yet again? However, Rawlins may well be right in feeling he has to buttress his arguments so soundly, and after all he has managed to do it impeccably. But we did say that those last four pages were the pay-off: so what is he saying? That the smart machines are coming; and that this will make the world very odd indeed. In the future, it may be much harder to kill yourself by turning on a gas oven or running a car in a locked garage – both your oven and your car may figure out what you’re trying to do and prevent you… Are we ready for a world of feral cars? Some of these future machines will be so complex that they’ll eventually become more like cats than cars. On the one hand, Rawlins is arguing that modern programming is a terrible way to make computers intelligent (being so literal minded as to prohibit any adaptive behavior on the machine’s part, so effectively preventing it from working out what mistakes it made in the past). On the other, he argues that the unstoppable trend to make more and more simpler and better computers qua hardware will force evolutionary changes in the way we program them, leading to machine intelligence – though he believes we are more likely to start growing such systems from adaptive, intelligent agents than building them top down.

AI wrangling

The hard part: what are we to make of these intelligences when we, sooner or later, start making them? The first few machine intellects will probably also be insane, or at least, extremely quirky. Building something so complex from scratch will probably take many, many years of experiment before we get it just right. Perhaps all of them will be insane to some extent. Perhaps we are too. Perhaps when your future toaster breaks down and refuses to toast your bread because it’s having a bad day, you won’t get an engineer or a mechanic, you’ll call a therapist. Rawlins takes a neat side step through all the AI wrangling about what intelligence is or isn’t. Though they won’t be anything like us – not for a very long time, he is convinced that philosophical arguments about whether these new intelligences are persons or not will become irrelevant: Whether they are really alive will be beside the point. As the children who accept them as alive grow up and gain power in the world, they’ll pass laws to protect the new entities. The machines will gradually stop being property and start becoming persons. But just as he starts raising these terrifically interesting ethical, sociological and psychological issues… he ends the book! As Thoreau said long ago, we’ve become the tools of our tools. How right he was might well become clear less than thirty years from now. For one day, something vast and cool and strange may read these very words – and chuckle with amusement… The title of the book, incidentally, refers not to some science fiction nightmare in which the Robots control us, but the fact that the primitive ways we now use computers limit what we can do to them; if anything, Rawlins is more worried about how we ill enslave these new creatures than they doing bad to us. All in all, Rawlins has written a great introduction to the key questions around information technology and machine life, but has limited himself to producing a primer, not any set of radical speculations, on the implications of what he himself raises. In short, not a book recommended for most of us who work in IT. But do this book for that nephew or niece of yours you feel is ready to start tackling the questions of widespread computer influence on our society; if Rawlins is right, they are the ones who’ll need all the help they can get to get the questions asked right.

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