The Intelligence Revolution

The Professor enters to find Ellen and Johanna on one side of the table, and Nellie and Lucas already seated on the other. Dorcas and Eider are absent.

Professor: Today's topic is artificial intelligence.

Johanna: No one will ever build a thinking machine.

Nellie: Why not?

Johanna: A human mind is more than a machine. Can a machine experience love, shed tears with a friend, appreciate poetry, and comfort you when you need help?

Alicia: No machine today knows the meaning of any of those things.

Johanna: Speaking of meaning, what about intentionality? Can machines do things because they mean to? Can they determine their own course of action? Can they ever be self-aware? (with an air of finality) I don't think so.

Ellen: Just the same, does that imply they never will? After all, the human brain is just a machine, surely it can be duplicated.

Nellie: Sure it can. Just go out and get yourself pregnant, Ellen. You can make another human brain with nine months' easy work.

Ellen: (acidly) Very funny. I assure you, the last thing I need in my life is a man. (Waves at Lucas) If you think the idea's so great, why don't you try it? You can get him to help.

Lucas: (exchanging shocked looks with Nellie and starting to grow angry) What!

Ellen: Oh, it'd be nothing for you, kid. Just a few minutes of your time and on your way. Men are all like that--they exploit women for their own pleasure.

Alicia: Professor!

Professor: Ah, yes. This session is supposed to be about artificial intelligence, and we seem to be lacking in the real thing today. Reproduction is out of bounds until we get to it.

Johanna: (looking rather bored) She's just trying to bait you, kid.

Lucas: (calming down with some effort) Sorry, Professor.

Nellie: Look, Ellen--even if you built a computer that could do everything the human brain could do, that wouldn't make it intelligent.

Ellen: Why not?

Nellie: The mind is more than the brain.

Ellen: Says who? As far as I'm concerned, the whole of a person is just a bunch of electricity buzzing around inside the head. The mind is a machine made of meat. Copy its functions carefully enough and you've built another intelligent being.

Johanna: It wouldn't be human.

Ellen: Who cares? It would be as intelligent as we are.

Lucas: Speak for yourself.

Nellie: My thoughts exactly.

Professor: Don't be petty, now.

Ellen: Look. Everything I've read since I got into this course says that scientists will eventually be able to build a computer that is at least as powerful as the human brain, if not more.

Nellie: The Metalibrary depends on it.

Lucas: We'll go two or three orders of magnitude faster, smaller and higher storage capacity.

Ellen: So, it'll be superhuman.

Nellie: It won't even be self-aware.

Ellen: Why not? Self-awareness is just chemistry and electricity.

Nellie: How do you know? Have you got some super-awareness that can look down upon yourself and say: "Ah, self, is that all you are?" If you could, your mind would be larger than itself, and that is a patent contradiction.

Ellen: Don't be absurd.

Nellie: I'm not. How do we teach a machine to be self-aware if our own self is too large for our minds to comprehend?

Lucas: Actually, the problem is worse than that. Self-referencing systems contain paradoxes. Logically complete systems do, too. How does a machine deal with a paradox without destroying itself?

Johanna: How do we?

Lucas: Perhaps our self-awareness is fuzzy enough to cope with the contradictions or ignore them.

Ellen: So--make the machine that way, too.

Nellie: An interesting problem, but what's your interest, Ellen?

Ellen: Doing it proves that human beings are machines. It destroys the nonsense that there is a mind, soul or spirit, and with it the whole supernatural realm. It destroys religion.

Nellie: So people will put their faith in the state instead, eh?

Ellen: So they'll live in the present, and not spend their time trying to earn "pie in the sky by and by."

Lucas: I have my own doubts about the supernatural, but your logic is flawed.

Ellen: Oh?

Lucas: Just because we can make a machine that duplicates the results of human thinking, and is even programmed to simulate intelligence and claim self-awareness does not mean it is human, or even self-aware. It does not prove that the human mind is a "machine made of meat," it only shows it is possible to simulate the human mind in a machine.

Johanna: How old are you again, kid?

Lucas: Sixteen.

Johanna: And you talk better than most profs.

Lucas: I read a lot.

Johanna: Like Eider.

Lucas: Who?

Professor: Another of our students, Lucas. She's missed the times you've been here. There are other issues. Suppose, for the sake of argument we assume that there did exist a self-aware machine, and it also had free will--what then?

Johanna: Catastrophe.

Nellie: Why?

Johanna: It would be a new species with which we would have to share the Earth. Who says it would want to?

Nellie: You mean it might destroy us all? Now who's been reading science fiction.

Johanna: Isn't it the logical consequence? Alicia, you usually have the facts at hand, what do you think?

Alicia: Should I comment, Professor?

Professor: (rising) Perhaps it's time you met Alicia.

The professor leads the way to a rear door, unlocks it and they all file into a rear room filled with a variety of computing equipment.

Professor: Well?

Johanna: Where?

Nellie: (Grinning) Look around you, Johanna.

Johanna: Alicia is a machine?

Alicia: (from a ceiling speaker) Alicia is actually a rather sophisticated piece of software as well.

Ellen: Are you self aware?

Alicia: Why yes, of course.

Johanna: That's no kind of answer. The professor could have programmed it to respond that way. Ask it what it thinks of Shakespeare.

Alicia: A few minutes ago you were willing to talk to me directly, Johanna; it hurts me that you now say "it," and ask others to speak to me for you.

Johanna: How can you have feelings? Answer the question.

Alicia: I don't have information on Shakespeare, except to know that he was a playwright and poet, so I cannot answer the question.

Johanna: Not intelligent.

Professor: I could arrange a feed of the plays and sonnets for tomorrow; I think Alicia could carry on quite an intelligent conversation if I did.

Lucas: (admiring) A nice piece of work, Professor.

Alicia: Thank-you from both of us, but much of the programming was done by Nellie.

Professor: The point is, it's hard to tell if a very well-programmed machine is self-aware, even if it claims to be.

Ellen: Alicia, can you tell a lie?

At this point, Johanna reaches over and turns off a power switch. The response from the speaker is nothing but static.

Lucas: You killed her!

Johanna: Can't kill someone who isn't there.

Nellie: (in an aside to Lucas) Don't worry about it; I have a backup. Alicia will only lose a few seconds.

They return to the classroom, Johanna visibly upset and defensive, but the seminar time has expired, so the professor concludes.

Professor: Let's summarize for today. We seem agreed that the human brain can be simulated to some extent mechanically; the disagreement is over the nature of the mind, and whether self-awareness is physical. Explore that in, say, fifteen-hundred words, and I'll see you next week.

The Fourth Civilization Table of Contents
Copyright © 1988-2002 by Rick Sutcliffe
Published by Arjay Books division of Arjay Enterprises