Unification News for July 2003

Living Machines

Ralph Jensen
July, 2003

In the 1979 science fiction movie 'Tron' Jeff Bridges plays a lone programmer hero fighting to reclaim his software property rights which were stolen by an evil computer system. When he gets too close, the machine beams him into the system. Inside he fights for his freedom in alliance with other freedom loving components, finally liberating the enslaved system and having himself beamed back to the real world -- with his property rights restored.

In the Terminator series a population of evil machines is trying to extinguish humankind in the future. To crush the human rebellion the machines send a robot back into our presence to kill the rebel leader when he is still a child.

In 'Millennium Man' a robot aspires to be human and on his deathbed is granted his wish by the world council of humans, because he has successfully acquired mortality. The movie 'AI' tells the story of a robot child searching through millennia for a human mother's love.

Most recently, in the Matrix series, another evil computer empire keeps humans in an embryonic sleep, drawing energy from their life force and feeding them dreams in return. A few of them awake, form a resistance group and step by step drive the virtual oppressors into the defensive.

In all these tales it is obvious that the machine protagonists possess consciousness. In Terminator II we are even given a date when the big evil one acquired consciousness.

This awareness of themselves makes the machines human like and worth associating with (AI, Millennium Man) or fighting against (Matrix, Terminator, Tron). Otherwise we would probably have little interest in observing these devices in action? The consciousness we observe in these virtual actors is vital to the impression they make on us. There is nothing like the real thing -- us.

One question worth asking here is: Where does this consciousness come from? The answer comes occasionally, yet then only implicitly: It just happened. Consciousness somehow emerged based on the complexity of the underlying hard and software. And that's all that's said about that. After the complexity of the machine networks exceeds that of the human brain, consciousness suddenly appears out of nowhere.

Despite all the focus on intelligence and virtue -- almost spirituality, this is actually a materialist view of humanity and reminds a bit of Engel's explanation of mankindís origin: Some ape began to use his hand to make a tool, started to walk upright, got a better view of things and -- woop -- became human.

Ray Kurzweil in his book 'The Age of Spiritual Machines', often mentioned in the context of machine consciousness, describes the process of man merging with machines sometime during the 21st century -- which is now. After computers exceed the memory and computational capabilities of the human brain, we will begin to use them as teacher and companions. Soon after that information will be fed directly in our brains and the distinction between man and machines will become blurred. When the machines then claim to be conscious, we will believe them.

This can be interpreted that machines will receive their consciousness from man but that still leaves open the original question -- where it came from in the first place.

And the assumption that consciousness emerges from the material world is really not more than that -- an assumption. It makes for some decent action, though.

This assumption comes from the same family as another one -- that there is no conscious driving force for development, meaning: Natural development occurred based on random mutation and natural selection. Kurzweil's quote of Peter Atkins, that "A great deal of the universe does not need any explanation. Elephants, for instance. Once molecules have learnt to compete and create other molecules in their own image, elephants, ... will in due course be found roaming through the countryside." is another way of putting it. This opinion is so widespread that it is taken for truth almost without question. It is certainly stimulating for scientific endeavor, because it helps us to focus on the issue at hand -- the objects of research and keeps disturbance out.

But is the assumption bullet proof? This question arises when we look at a familiar bottom line -- how much time did all that take? 15 billion years from 'zero' until today -- a common estimate. While that sounds like a long time it feels awfully short when considering the fact that at its first moment the universe did actually not even exist of matter. Gravity 'evolved' later -- a tenth of a millionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth second later (Kurzweil). I mean, there was nothing to start with in terms of what we consider building blocks of our world -- no atoms, not even particles.

It is foolish to question the validity of scientific endeavor. But assuming that there might be a conscious power behind the existence of our universe can be empowering -- also intellectually. In no way does it discourage the question 'How?' which is at the basis of scientific research. The new assumption may not even help answer that one. But it gives us a good start when asking 'Why?' and 'Where is it going?' The bottom line to watch here would not be time but coherence with science. We will still have open questions, though. Children will still have to wait for the answer what was before everything. Where does that original force come from? But to use standards of our own universe in time and space to ask questions of the world outside is as futile as using three coordinates to travel in the fourth dimension.

We are not worried of light's dualism between particle and wave. Why should we have problems with the assumption that there may be something behind existence rather than nothing but coincidence. Couldn't that also one day be the base for a decent action movie?

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