Friday, June 19, 2009

Brains Vs Computers

Gadfly
by Mort Malkin

Brains Vs Computers

In 1989, the middle ages as the history of computers is written, chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov beat Deep Blue, the best chess program at the time, in a two game match. By 1996 the programmers had added many more moves, combinations, and complete games to the Deep Blue program to make it invincible. In a five game match, Garry won 3-2. Worse for the computer nerds, he registered a complaint of cheating because he was not allowed to review the games Deep Blue used in its data base.

Computer science – science? or technology? – has been advancing at a rate that is making our machines obsolete every two years, and the rate is accelerating. In 2003, the same old Garry Kasparov played the newest, smartest member of the Blue family, Blue Junior. Garry was in good position but perhaps slightly tired. Afraid he might make a simple mistake, he called a draw. It seems the exponential increase in power and number of applications in computer technology is still no better than a first rate human brain.

The discussion of artificial intelligence (A.I.) was started by the science fiction writers and taken up by the film-makers. Special effects people found a medium that opened doors and dimensions. Of late, hackers and academics as well as Silicon Valley engineers are looking at A.I. as if its future is only days away (literal, not metaphorical days). Some years back they devised programs to allow the machines to answer any question, if you ask with the right words. Problems could also be solved forthwith. They say that some advanced programs will now “learn” with ongoing use and can even make inferences.

In the study of intelligence, a simple mirror can be used to determine muchitude. If a child between one and two years old can recognize who’s looking at whom (self or other) in a mirror, it’s supposed to indicate self awareness. Other great apes – chimps, orangs, bonobos, and gorillas – can recognize themselves in a mirror. Some magpies, elephants, orcas, and dolphins have been reported to have mirror awareness, too. Would a computer looking at itself in a mirror know if it was a PC or a Mac? Could two computers act out the Mime Scene that Harpo and Groucho delighted us with in “Duck Soup”?

In Star Trek’s Next Generation, Data is an android who can do calculations at speeds beyond belief, and is self aware enough to know he lacks human emotions. Moreover, he is a total flop at telling jokes. Gene Rodenberry, the creator of the series, was indeed prescient. Though Data was wondrous at computing and was immune from the effects of pathogenic viruses and bacteria, he could not experience fun, joy, or love. Will tomorrow’s super computer – the Singularity or the Technium – be satisfied to be without such emotions? We humans, so well experienced in emotions, can surely convince the self aware machines that living without love will also mean they won’t have to experience anxiety, anger, or depression.

As computers become more human in self awareness and even more superhuman in computational power, they will displace more workers. But a few folks don’t seem to be concerned for their jobs. Fine artists may use MacIntosh digital art programs, but the human artist at the controls must still judge the qualities of size, shape, contrast, color, texture, perspective, and composition. Only a live artist will know what’s really good. Poets, too, feel the threat to their art is as small as their income from it. A machine may have a fine rhyming dictionary implanted in the heart of its body and may be able to count stressed and unstressed syllables; but sensibility is sensibility, and verse is only verse. The last class of folks who say “What, me worry?” are the satirists. Like Data, computers will never learn how to tell a joke well. The machine will never know how to make fun of politicians or blond commentators on Fox News. Satirists are the first to admit their brains are unstructured and their thinking undisciplined. It is the very antithesis of computer science.

And what computer will ever exhibit the quality of grace or serenity? What computer, with all the advanced degrees (pH Ds piled higher and deeper) of the people who produce the hardware and software, has any common sense?

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