Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Machines Make Us Different.

What makes us different from everything else? Some say language, some say morality. Some say tool use. But these have predecessors in nature: birds and mammals exchange signals and information via cries and body language; chimpanzees and elephants exhibit empathy and altruism; chimpanzees use sticks as tools.

What’s new about humans is that they make machines. Although you could argue that beavers also make machines. The beaver dam is a system that runs on water and gravity. A kind of proto-machine.

Machines are a kind of tool that uses energy to perform a pre-designed activity. Machines are built, maintained and have evolved, with the care and guidance of human hands.

Simple tools like a hammer require the human body to apply the energy, but many machines run by themselves with the assistance of some power source. A machine like a computer, can execute a human command to fetch or manipulate information all on its own.

Machines are a wholly new phenomenon. They did not exist before humans existed. That’s why it is an error to conceptualize living things as machines, as was done by Descartes. Descartes was the first modern philosopher. He framed the famous body-mind dichotomy for the modern era.

Machines don’t have instincts. They require human purpose and guidance in order to survive over time. If you look around at nature, it does not require human purpose and guidance. It’s parts are self organized. The Earth does not require our help to orbit the Sun.

We call living things like cells and mitochondria - machines. We say, in a metaphorical fashion, that the mitochondria “is designed” to provide energy for the cell.

That’s our inner engineer talking. Once we started building machines they started to influence us and the way we looked at the world. We’re envious of the natural world where things work by themselves, independently of us.

It appears that the evolution of machines is going in the direction of greater autonomy. There are now robotic submarines and spaceships that can work on their own, separated by great depths and huge distances.

And this seeming trend towards machines gaining autonomy has actually spawned a a new religion out there, which has influenced the minds of Silicon Valley, with the awkward title: Singulatarianism. It’s main tenant appears to be straight out of the plot of “The Terminator” the 70’s science fiction movie. It’s actually based on the theories of a writer named Raymond Kurzweil. The idea is that when computers are all interconnected and reach a certain processing speed and degree of technological sophistication, they will combine into a globally conscious self (the singularity) which will be able to maintain itself and replicate without human intervention.

What makes this a religion, is the insistence that this is inevitable, and that it will lead to eternal life. (I won’t get into the specifics here, but you can check it out on Wikipedia.

Most Religions see God as creating nature, whereas Singulatarianism sees humans as creating God. Perhaps this is apt, coming from Silicon Valley. But is it really something to look forward to?

And does it not remind you of genetic engineering? Corporations are creating plants with characteristics designed for industrial purposes in order to improve on nature. And once these plants are created and shed their pollen, they are out there, able to replicate themselves and share their genes with natural varieties, because that’s what life does.

Machines and other human creations don’t have empathy or caring for others. That requires emotions and their coordination in human minds and bodies. Computers can replicate ideas but they can’t replicate emotions like love, desire, and happiness. We’ve forgotten that it takes both positive and negative emotions to make decisions, to understand the past and plan for the future, and to change our behaviour. That’s our responsibility as humans, something we can’t delegate to machines or market forces.