Into the Machine

The image that sticks in my mind, from the covers of early Science Fiction paperbacks, is of a robot, like the bastard offspring of a dustbin and a food processor, chasing a half-naked woman across some lunatic professor’s laboratory. Of course, as was the case with many SF pulps of the time, the stories inside were intelligent, and bore no relation to the cover picture. For this the writers should have fed the publisher feet-first into his own printing press. Ever since early SF writers cast the robot in the role of Frankenstein’s monster, the image of a sentient machine murdering its makers and taking over, has endured – examples of the type being Terminator, HAL, and numerous Dr Who baddies (I’m sure any of you reading this can think of many more). However, for machines to take over bespeaks a certain superiority that does not yet seem likely. First, we must make them better than ourselves.

Although we are even now developing computers that can out-think us in many specific respects, the science of cybernetics, and straightforward material technologies have a long way to go. A computer can beat a man at chess – great – but can it actually pick up the pieces and move them, recognise certain members in the audience, converse with its opponent, then walk away from the table afterwards? We can make a mechanical hand that has a more powerful grip than our own and it can move with eerie similarity, but will it function for eighty years without falling apart? We are an awfully long way from being able to create something that can outperform a human being.

All this is moot, though, for the development of human technology that has taken us from the flint arrowhead to the PC, follows an undeviating course. All our machines are merely tools – extensions of ourselves. Just as binoculars are an extension of human sight, books are an extension of human memory and communication, and just as pair of pliers is an extension of the human hand, the computer is an extension of the human mind. These are, in the main, indirect extensions. But we try to make them more direct all the time: soft shaped grips for the pliers; Windows, mouse, the virtual glove and voice recognition for the computers. We are moving closer all the time – getting into the machine.

Most direct extensions are at present the province of the medical world. Prosthetics have been around since before Captain Hook and in the last century most of us have seen moveable plastic limbs. Prosthetics are, like the rest of our tools, extensions of us. Now consider where they are going.

This technology is developing at an increasing rate: from such devices to assist the body, as do pacemakers and the Jarvik heart pump, we are leaping ahead to those that actually restore function, such as chips surgically implanted to restore sight to the blind. Already being tested are prosthetic limbs that can be surgically attached and wired into the nervous system (the most interesting advance being feedback i.e. making fingertips that can actually feel). Through people like Kevin Warwick, who is actively experimenting with implants to link him to a computer, and through advances in medical prosthetics, we will eventually reach a stage where the replacement is better than the part replaced, or will provide additional abilities. People are going to want these – needed or otherwise.

It could be argued that at this point it would be possible for the superior computer/AI mind to acquire its required physical interface with the world, strangle the mad professor, then march off to exterminate the rest of the human race. However, by then it would be too late for the machines to take over, for we will be as much, if not more than them. By the time we can build a machine that could destroy us, we’ll be able to upgrade ourselves to equivalent or greater efficacy.

Pursuing Warwick’s experiments to one conclusion, it will be possible for the computer to truly become an extension of the human mind – directly linked, not via a nerve impulse to open doors. This may come about as a medical technique for restoring/curing the brain damaged, or it might be developed as the next quickest way to get onto the Internet. Whatever. There will come a time when someone will be able to go into a shop to buy extended memory or larger processing power, and it won’t be for their PC, or rather, the lines will be so blurred that PC and person will be indistinguishable. Your future girlfriend won’t be staying in because she’s washing her hair, but because she’s running a virus check and defrag on what lies underneath it.

Often in SF, the humans are little different from us, and the machines vastly superior. The truth of the matter I feel is that in the next few centuries definitions of what is human will become rather hazy, and the individual of that future unrecognisable to us. In the end humans will be able to upload/download their minds into machines, extend their memory, leave part of their minds in machines, load machine minds and programming into their own. Their bodies might be more synthetics than flesh while biotechnology would have by then given us living computers. Pointing to different items and classifying one as a machine and one as a human being will be as difficult as distinguishing egg white and sugar in a meringue.

Of course, all the above refutes many of the plot elements of Gridlinked with its omnipotent AIs, psychotic android and indefatigable Golem, which goes to prove that truth may well be stranger than fiction, and that writers are not to be trusted.