Saturday, December 02, 2006

Machinations, Minds and Machines

Both my Mac and PC were down the last couple of days. Since I had been writing so much about machine intelligence I wondered if they were conspiring and rising up against me.

A computer was the title given to a person who worked with numbers. The machine that replaced him took from him not only his livelihood but ignominiously also his name. A machine can be defined phenomenologically as anything which enacts some dispensation of energy. Anything that does anything is a machine. But the mêchanê (μηχανῆς) as known to the ancient Greeks was a type of crane device that was used to lift up and bring the Gods flying onto the stage. This is where we get the Latin Deus ex Machina or literally "God from the Machine" that swoops into a dramatic play and out of the blue is able to solve a hopeless situation.

My favourite example of Deus ex Machina recently is in the film Adaptation written by Charlie Kaufman. The film is about the writing of the very film we watch. After becoming completely stuck the hero screenwriter goes to a Robert McKee seminar and in epiphany all of his problems are solved. Later over a drink McKee harshly warns him not to dare employing a Deus ex Machina in his script. A clever example of the very device raising a warning about itself.

The word machine has come to be used in various ways. The cross in Christian Liturgy has been described as the "theatre machine" of Jesus. Early motor vehicles were simply called "machines" as they are still called machina in Italian and other Romance languages. In this century a brilliant thinker envisioned something called a Turing Machine which directly lead to the creation of what we know as the computer.

In present day English we seem to use the word machine in the sense of something that is used to carry out some work. Despite the fact that the human mind comfortably falls within the definition of a machine in the most basic sense, it is meant as an antithesis to the human. The machine is thought to be something unthinking. The idea of machine seems to imply an absence of agency altogether. In other words, the machine is said to have no will. It is simply designed or programmed to act.

The computer (the human who worked with numbers) was replaced by a machine (the computer who works with numbers). We now ask if the human mind is really just a machine and also whether a machine can have human intelligence. If human intelligence is a complex machine that can be replicated by the "computer" should we fear that such a device designed to carry out work can replace us not just in the mundane number-crunching professions but replace human intelligence in some wholesale fashion? Should we be concerned that these innocuously named devices could devise some such machinations?

There are some who predict that the increasing complexity and processing power of computers will allow them to reach a stage in which a single processor will be more powerful than all of human thinking capacity combined. Millions of such processors networked or combined in some parallel fashion would create the power and intelligence of some entity that would undoubtedly be described by some as a god or God. Turning Nietzsche on his head, after killing God we will give birth to him in the near future by using the computer as the theatre machine of resurrection. Will this be the god from the machine that comes out of the blue to solve all of our problems and will this Deus ex Machina be kind and helpful enough to raise any warnings about itself?


1 comment:

amy said...

from now on when i have computer trouble i'm going to say "my UTM is acting up again."

i received the film "Game Over: Kasparov and the Machine" in the mail from my dvd service recently. i'd forgotten that i put it in my queue some time ago, after a searle lecture!