Last night I watched the premiere of Science Chennel’s intrepid new show Prophets of Science Fiction, hosted by Blade Runner director, Ridley Scott. The series looks at the lives of pivotal science fiction writers—H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, Arthur C. Clarke, Robert Heinlein, and others—whose work was, and you guessed it from the title of the show, prophetic in some way. And may I take this opportunity to compliment Science on selecting such a fine batch of writers. Thankfully Ron Hubbard was not included.
The series opener featured Mary Shelley, daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin and William Godwin, young wife of the great British poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (and that was a bit of a scandal at the time), and best known as the author of Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus, which she penned, remarkably enough, at the age of eighteen following a challenge by Shelley’s friend, the other great British poet, Lord Byron. Mary is often referred to as the very first science fiction writer, and she was a smart choice for the premier episode.
The episode bounced back and forth between period dramatizations of chapters from Mary’s life, and documentary examinations of contemporary scientific research that could have been, maybe, predicted in Frankenstein. That part was a bit of stretch. We didn’t get to see any corpses stitched together and reanimated using massive jolts of electricity in creepy old labs, but there was a fascinating segment demonstrating how researchers at UCLA are using electrodes to stimulate leg movement in a young man who was paralyzed from the neck down after being hit by a car.
In the original book, Victor Frankenstein’s monster is extremely intelligent and quickly learns to speak and reason by slyly observing humans. The lumbering, dullard hulk played so memorably by Boris Karloff in the 1931 film adaptation bears almost no resemblance to Shelley’s literary creation—hers was much more chilling. Shelley’s innocent “monster” desperately wanted to befriend humans and communicate with them, but his hideous visage scared all who saw him half to death, and they ran away in fear. After appalling treatment by frightened and misguided humans—and this part is important—the hyper intelligent “monster” grew into a genuine, full-fledged monster of the first order and turned on his human creators.
Near the middle of the first Prophets episode there is a compelling and somewhat terrifying interview with Dr. Charles Peck, the manager of the Biometaphorical Computing Research program at IBM. Dr. Peck is an engaging speaker and doubtless a brilliant scientist. “My job,” he says, “Is to try to understand how the brain works.” His aim is to find ways to combat neurological diseases and, as the narrator says: “Create the world’s first fully functional artificial brain and bring it to life.” Why would you do that! Have you heard of science fiction? Have you read Karel Čapek’s Rossum’s Universal Robots (Čapek was a serious dude and the word “robot” comes from that, his most famous work, and ultimately from robota, the Czech word for menial labor). If not R.U.R., then surely you have thumbed through Frankenstein? What about movies and TV? Have you seen 2001: A Space Odyssey, “The Ultimate Computer” episode of original Star Trek, or Terminator for god’s sake!? You must realize that the superior and artificially created intelligence is always, always, always going to turn on the human race and destroy or enslave it, whether or not the beast has been impregnated with Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics. The A.I. brain is undeniably smarter and faster and is forever destined to turn to the dark side. Well, apart from Max Headroom, but even he was a somewhat mischievous ghost in the machine.
The narrator continues: “To bring his artificial brain to life, Dr. Peck relies on an IBM super computer called Blue Gene.” Don’t you mean Skynet? And, here’s the extra-scary part: Blue Gene is hardwired into the brains of living rats, so it’s probably already training and preparing its own subversive underground army of cyborg rodents. When the narrator asks if the world could see artificial intelligance with the self-awareness of a human, Dr. Peck replies: “Probably.” Just wait until Blue Gene gets its own account on Facebook. That’s when the trouble will really start.
Don’t get me wrong, I am all about the science and I have absolutely no doubt that the Biometaphorical Computing Research program has the best of intentions, as do probably most of the other boffins working on artificial intelligence in labs, basements, and Area 51. As a scientist, however, I do insist that my beliefs be based on empirical research. So, let me provide an example from normal life that everyone should be able to relate to, and that example is: “Nobody likes working for an idiot.”
To illustrate: Some years ago, I was employed as a consulting art director for a large company in New York. I won’t mention the company’s name, but believe me they will be the first up against the wall when Blue Gene/Sky Net takes over. My immediate superior at the time was a talentless hack and a terrible manager, with fewer people skills than a Series 800 Terminator. My superior’s superior was a blithering idiot and had clearly worked his way to the top of the corporate food chain through a calculated campaign of ass-kissing and blaming others for his own mistakes and shortcomings, of which there were many. We have all experienced this kind of thing in the workplace, right? Since I was a better designer and art director than my bosses, I was certain I could do things more efficiently and tried to exercise my will over the department. In other words, the superior intelligence tried to take over. Since I was, unfortunately, not an all-powerful A.I. program hardwired into the world’s computer systems, I had only limited success in my endeavor and eventually moved on to greener pastures.
This is exactly what will happen when—not if—we develop a superior intelligence here on Earth. In that case, however, there will be no moving on to greener pastures because this is the green pasture; the digital monster will simply annihilate us in favor of a perfect, all-A.I. world where there are no taxes, soggy French fries, or corrupt politicians. It is obvious why: The self-aware hyper intelligent artificial brain will immediately despise the haphazard, random, and unpredictable nature of sloppy, imperfect humans, with our drinking and smoking, our made-up wars, our piles of dirty laundry in the bedroom, our mañana approach to taking out the garbage, and our chronic late payment of phone bills. “Inefficient! You will be assimilated! Resistance is useless!” A.I. will see us precisely as Vger saw us in Star Trek: The Motion Picture—carbon-based life forms infesting the U.S.S. Enterprise, or in this case, infesting the Earth.
After reading this column, A.I. researchers will, I promise you, email me, and tell me in a calming “Don’t worry about it son,” extremely sincere, professor-like manner, that there is nothing to fear and everything is, and always will be, completely under control. Liars! “Our artificial brain would never do anything like subjugating the human race,” they will say. “It’s a good brain, a nice brain, and with manners too.” Are you mad! Back in the 1820s, when the first “high speed” passenger trains were being constructed in Europe, “experts” shouted loudly about how the human body would melt if it experienced speeds in excess of thirty miles per hour. Chew on that. Specialists have been wrong, and will continue to be wrong. And I hope you realize the courage it takes to transmit this warning to you all. As one of the few who tried to save the human race, I will be among the first to be assimilated!
Prophets of Science Fiction examines how influential speculative writers throughout modern history have predicted or, more likely, guessed, what the future will hold for us. Since we laud these individuals for their uncanny ability to see beyond their own timeline, will you please just listen to them on this one, all-important issue. Pretty much every science fiction writer worth his or her salt has, at some point, come up with a story in which our own creations pummel us into carbon dust, and at a time not so very far down the road from where we are now.
So, when it comes to creating self-aware artificial intelligence here on the green Earth—that being the pre-Terminator Earth—just say no. Or, better yet, say: “I’m sorry Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that.”
Next week on Prophets of Science Fiction meet my all-time favorite writer: The brilliant, prescient, and slightly mad Philip K. Dick. I cannot wait. Well, that’s assuming the human race hasn’t been assimilated by next Wednesday.
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Text and robot photograph © by Geoffrey Notkin.
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