Mark A. Carter

CAN A MACHINE THINK? By Arthur C. Clarke

 Edited by Mark A. Carter

World famous Canadian Science Fiction writer Mark A. Carter has edited an essay written by Arthur C. Clarke entitled "Can a machine think?" Although the article was published in 1977, it is still well worth reading. Caradog James must surely have read it before he wrote The Machine. Enjoy.

The question Can a machine think? was first seriously asked, and answered, in the 1950s by the tragically short-lived mathematical genius Alan Turing. You will find his famous paper, with many other goodies, in James Newman's The World of Mathematics. But Science Fiction writers have always known the answer, and the intelligent machine is one of the most common characters in the genre. Ambrose Bierce opened his classic short story, written in 1909, entitled 'Moxon's Master' with the words: "Are you serious? Do you really believe that a machine thinks?" And he neatly evaded the issue with another question: "Is not a man a machine? You will admit that he thinks or thinks he thinks."

Arthur C. Clarke in 1984

Now that great universities such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology sponsor Departments of Artificial Intelligence this old argument is essentially over; nevertheless, even the most enthusiastic proponent of AI would hardly claim that any of today's machines show more than the most rudimentary intelligence. What is claimed is that if any intellectual activity can be precisely described, then a machine can, in principle, be designed to carry it out. There are a lot of hidden ifs in both parts of that sentence; but many scientists have now stated flatly that machines more intelligent than men will exist in the near future. Some have told me before 2001, but I do not believe them.

And incidentally, those people who argue that it is obviously impossible for human beings to create entities more intelligent than themselves merely demonstrate that non-thinking is not confined to machines. Much the same logic would prove that we could never progress from Stone Age flint to modern precision tools, for how can any tool make something better than itself?

It is probably no coincidence that when he was at MIT, John W. Campbell got to know Norbert Wiener, founder of the modern AI theme, with such stories as 'When the Atoms Failed' written in 1930 and 'The Last Evolution' written in 1932. The title of the second story sums up a whole category of later tales, perhaps culminating in Fredric Brown's famous 'Answer' written in 1954. "Is there a God? There is now."

Arthur C. Clarke used a Kaypro II to write his 1982 novel 2010: Odyssey Two. The novel was submitted for publication via modem from Sri Lanka.

The earliest thinking machines were almost invariably Frankenstein monsters, out to destroy their creators, and usually succeeding; Campbell was one of the first writers to make them not only benevolent but even noble. Isaac Asimov took matters further with his Three Laws of Robotics, an ingenious attempt to lay down a protocol for man-machine relationships, and a generator of endless plot ideas. Some simple-minded readers have assumed that these laws are indeed Laws, like those of nature, and not merely rules, akin to Please drive on the left or right. I have had the First Law thrown in my teeth as a result of HAL 9000's mutiny; to which I have replied that, so far, alas, the world's most sophisticated robots have been designed for the express purpose of killing people ...

There is, of course, no fundamental reason why robots should not be programmed to hate or to love. See Lester del Rey's 'Helen of Loy', 1938. The first generation of thinking machines would indeed mirror the emotions of their builders. But later generations would go on to develop emotions perhaps beyond human understanding.

Men always fear what they cannot understand, often with good reason. The mathematician Dr. I. J. Good, who has made a special study of the subject, has remarked: "If we build an ultra-intelligent machine, we will be playing with fire. We have played with fire before, and it has helped to keep the other animals at bay."

But when AI does arrive, we shall be the other animals; and look at what has happened to them.

It will be poetic justice.

/   Arthur C. Clarke

Source: Ash, Brian, ed. The Visual Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. New York: Harmony, 1977, p. 181.

POSTSCRIPT by Mark A Carter: Despite Arthur C. Clarke's vivid imagination, and that of Stanley Kubrick, when they worked on the 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey, neither foresaw the remarkable size reduction in computers that would occur between the late nineteen-sixties and now. Also, they did not foresee the increase in computational power and speed, as per Moore's Law, that would occur every two years. And they could not imagine anything in reality resembling the positronic brain envisioned by Isaac Asimov in the nineteen fifies. But Science Fiction is predictive. How many times do I have to say it? And the latest news, just off the grapevine, is that IBM has indeed created the first brain-like cluster of CPUs. Google, after all, will need a sophisticated electronic brain in their autonomous military robots. It should come as no surprise that much of the funding came from DARPA. And after ten years of development, it is finally a reality. Sorry Arthur, IBM has developed what you could not imagine in your wildest dreams. I guess Asimov was right after all. And so, it begins.

Read: Artificial Super-Intelligence
Future War
Hologram Universe
IBM Builds Brain
Killer Robots
Robot Takeover
Sex Robots
We may exist in a Simulation.

Now you know.

from the imagination of Mark A. Carter - writer

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