by Jim Hull

Copyright © 2002, 2015 by Jim Hull. All rights reserved.




Gary Kasparov must have woken up, late one night, bathed in flop sweat after he resigned his chess match against IBM's Deep Blue computer in 1997. After all, he'd boldly predicted that "we will beat machines for some time to come."1 And he was world champion, perhaps the greatest ever. His honor, and that of humanity, was at stake. Alas, the daring prediction -- along with one of our most precious vanities, the notion that the human mind reigns supreme -- evaporated in the heat of a relentless central processor. "I'm a human being," Kasparov said. "When I see something that is well beyond my understanding, I'm afraid."2

What does it mean for our future when one of the great geniuses of the century is vanquished by a patchwork of microchips? What becomes of our vaunted powers of creativity and ingenuity when a machine can outthink us at our most revered intellectual exercise? For that matter, where is our purpose when computer-aided design and management programs threaten to put attachés, architects, and attorneys out of work? What will become of us when machines invade our workplaces and replace us with mechanical parts that do a better job, do it twenty-four hours a day, and don't need child care? Where is our uniqueness when a box contains more brainpower than a brain? Will gadgets put all of us out of work? Is Kasparov's defeat a bellwether of our doom? Are we obsolete?

No, we're not, not at all -- but not for the expected reasons.

The expected reasons are, "Machines will never be able to think! Machines will never be able to create! Only humans can do those things." These reasons are quite popular, but they smack of denial. They don't address all the possibilities -- including the grim ones -- of our future. They hide in the sand.

Sooner than we think, machines will match us in brainpower and creativity. Sooner than we care to admit, devices will write sonnets, design buildings, compose music, prepare legal briefs, counsel the troubled. Today they run trains, monitor hospital patients, fill out tax forms, collect information, manage power plants. Right now an airliner could, if required, take off from Los Angeles, fly across the United States, and land safely in New York without anyone aboard.3 Computers can predict weather patterns or calculate elaborate shipping schedules (tasks technically impossible to do completely) faster and more accurately than can people. Today, a machine can defeat the highest-rated human chess player of all time.

Why are people so quick to deny these predictions? After all, it is we who invent all those amazing contraptions, we who keep stunning ourselves with our own ingenuity, we who dare to build the gadgets that explore the planets, unwind our DNA, repair our myopic eyes, and entertain us with glorious cinematic special effects. Why would we suddenly fail at the next challenge, creating machines that think? Already they ape many of our thought functions -- especially logical activities like math -- to perfection. Routinely they perform much of the painstaking film-animation work that humans used to do. Daily they diagnose medical test samples and perform surgeries, direct the affairs of airports, and oversee telephone networks and the Internet. And they can, through brute calculating force, outwit chess players in the very arena we once thought the exclusive province of the great human intellects.

And that's just the point: it doesn't matter whether we can invent a machine that thinks and creates like we do; we've already built devices that can simulate creative thought. It's already happening! It's too late! The machines are storming the gates!






In the film "The Terminator," robots of the future have taken over the planet, systematically slaughtering what remains of humanity. One man leads an armed resistance, which inconveniences the machines. The androids hit upon a clever plan and send one of their own back in time to kill the mother of the revolutionary. Arnold Schwarzenegger's fame skyrocketed as that robotic visitor, warning, "I'll be back!" And so he was, in the second installment, "Terminator II: Judgment Day," but this time he was a good robot sent by the revolutionary to protect his mom.

Part of the fun of these movies was our deep ambivalence about the 'droids: Arnold-the-Bad-Bot was frightening yet somehow appealing in his relentlessness; Arnold-the-Good-Bot was heroic and fearless, which is to say relentless in a worthy cause. Either way, don't you wish some of your employees or co-workers were as pumped up about getting their jobs done? Maybe the world would work better.

There you have the core of the dilemma: will we love our machines of the future or hate them? Will we admire them or fear them for their abilities?

The recurring nightmare, as embodied by the "Terminator" films, is that robots will run amok, trampling us in their lust for conquest, and we'll be powerless to stop them. Where does this terror come from? We don't fear that our cars will suddenly rev up in a mass uprising and drive into our homes, mowing us down. We don't expect our telephones will one day electrocute us in revenge for all the babbled inanities they've had to transmit. And few of us worry that our ovens will lure us inside them, lock us up, and switch on to "broil." Yet we fear the advent of thinking machines.

Already we have doubts about the onrush of change brought about by computers. Using a home PC to "surf the Web" can alarm the technophobe in us, especially when the computer freezes during a download of something worthwhile, like naked pictures of Laura Schlessinger. For that matter, our children regularly enter "chat rooms" and speak to total strangers a continent away: Lord knows what mischief that interloper might be brewing! Banks consolidate with brokerages, and suddenly your private financial transactions are for sale to the highest-bidding mass-marketer. Use your debit card as a charge card -- signing your name on the receipt, as many such cards allow -- and some backroom clerk with a balloon-payment crisis or a drug habit can forge your signature, steal your card number, and clean out your checking account. Amazing new special effects rush across the TV screen during commercials in ever-faster, more-confusing panoply, and you're no longer sure you can withstand their hypnotic pull.

Imagine, then, future generations of machines that outthink you, anticipating your moods and thoughts in a twinkling, outracing your poor powers to compete. If their purposes are less than benign, would you stand a chance?

Here's how bad our fear of thinking machines has gotten: we won't even admit they can compete with us! . . . .




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1. James Kim, "Upcoming chess match not as simple as 'man vs. computer,' " USA Today, 1997 (updated 28 February 1999), Internet p.

2. Bruce Weber, "IBM's Chess Machine Beats Humanity's Champ," New York Times, 12 May 1997, Internet p.

3. E-mail from airline captain George Hull, 22 April 2001.