In his 1988
(Harvard University Press), Hans Moravec sketched the future
development of robots, proposed that within about fifty years
it would be possible to transfer human minds into computers, and
speculated on the replacement of biological intelligence by machine
intelligence. To him, robots would be the creations of our minds
just as our children are the creations of our bodies, and since
it is our minds that make us most distinctively human, our "mind
children" would be our children in the more important sense. At
the same time, mind transfer would offer us true immortality.
Mere Machine to Transcendent Mind, Moravec tells us
"Among many nice reviews of [the earlier
book] an angry few brandished words like horrific, nightmare
and immoral, and at least one was too irate to publish." I find
that curious, for to a mind steeped in science and science fiction
since adolescence, Moravecs ideas are not terribly strange even
if they do push the envelope of what even a visionary scientist
Yet Mind Children was very much a part of a discussion of the potentials of artificial
intelligence and robotics that began almost as soon as the first
digital computers began chewing their bytes. Norbert Wiener invented
cybernetics to "study brainlike activity in animals and machines."
And in 1950, Alan Turing proposed that if one could not tell the
intellectual difference between a computer and a human conversationalist,
there was no such difference. The computer would be intelligent
in the only way that matters.
Since then a great deal of effort has gone into meeting the demands
of the "Turing test." So far success has been only partial, but
there has been enough success to justify immense optimism in the
minds of some, such as Moravec. On the other hand, others still
resist the notion that a machine, a mere thing, could ever possibly really think. After all, its too deterministic, quantum uncertainty is obviously
essential to true thought, and it couldnt possibly have a soul,
a mind, emotions, a sense of beauty, a... The list of deficits
is endless; it also tends to be revised every time clever programmers
figure out how to give a computer a new capability.
To some extent, Robot: Mere Machine to Transcendent Mind is a recapitulation and updating of the earlier book, reviewing
the development of robots up to the point where they can take
control of their own continuing improvement or evolution. Moravec
devotes considerable space to what a civilization dominated by
autonomous machines must mean for human economies. He does not
shrink from the thought that most humans will be content to eat
the lotus in idle bliss, supported by a horde of advanced robots
programmed to be happy slaves. That wont last, though. Some folks
will tire of idleness and give up their humanity to become "Exes,"
robots animated by transferred human minds, and hie off into the
far reaches of the galaxy. After a while, theyll have to move
fast when they leave Earth, for natural selection guarantees that
our robotic servitors will give rise to more independent sorts,
even to predators eager to absorb the materials, energy supplies,
and even programs of anything -- including Exes -- that cant
resist or elude them. In other words, there will eventually be
a vast and diverse robotic "ecosystem" out in space.
In time, mere robots and Exes will be surpassed by superminds,
which in turn will give way to what can only be described as an
intelligent universe, a universe converted to computational apparatus
and sheer mind in which all reality is virtual. Indeed, what he
says is that within this vast "cyberspace," the "real" world will
exist only as a simulation of itself. This includes plants, animals,
and intelligent beings, and the simulation will be so perfect
that no one will be able to tell the difference.
Science fiction readers, who have seen many of these ideas before,
find them enchanting. Others find them terrifying, which explains
some of the reactions Moravec receives, even from such scientific
luminaries as Roger Penrose, who has spent a good deal of effort
arguing against the idea of machine intelligence.
Moravec is too polite to call Penrose out in person, but he does
borrow the form of Turings seminal 1950 paper to attempt -- like
Turing -- to lay to rest the various objections to the notion
of machine intelligence. These objections he phrases roughly like
1. Machines have no souls, so cannot think;
2. Thinking machines cannot be possible, because the consequences
would be too dreadful;
3. Mechanical reasoning is too limited;
4. Machines can have no inner experience to give meaning to their
"thoughts" or actions;
5. Machines will never be kind, moral, joyous, perceptive, original,
6. Computers do only what we can program them to do;
7. Computers dont have nerve cells;
8. It is not possible to specify for a machine what to do in every
possible circumstance a human can encounter;
9. Computers cant have ESP (Moravec considers this a genuine
nonissue but deals with it because Turing did).
Moravec is not always convincing, but I do not think it is possible
to be more so. The immense leaps in the development of robots
and artificial intelligence that he discusses cannot be predicted
confidently given the present infantile state of the art. However,
it is just as unreasonable for the opposition to say those leaps
cannot be made. Both sides display an almost religious adherence
to their beliefs. Certainly Moravec has faith in his dreams. His
opponents have faith in tradition.
Im inclined to side with Moravec, and I recommend Robot: Mere Machine to Transcendent Mind as a stimulating, provocative treat for your own mind.