Will Man Become Obsolete?

I spent an hour on Fifth Avenue last week, just a visitor from Boston now, but awed, once again and as always, by the size and vitality of my native city. In the shadow of St. Patrick’s, I stood transfixed before the window displays of commercial spinoffs from computer technology—watches that play baseball and beep “Dixie,” radios thinner than my bankbook, $10 calculators representing a thousandfold advance upon the $400 device I bought with such a sense of modernity just ten years ago. It took this scale of densely packed, beeping, flashing, almost living and pulsating objects to force my reluctant paleontologist’s soul to a recognition that the revolution is already upon us—the most profound change in human life since everything from trains to television brought us all together. One block west, at Rockefeller Center, an inscription proclaims: “Wisdom and knowledge shall be the stability of thy times.” I wonder. Wisdom, perhaps, but….

Robert Jastrow’s The Enchanted Loom treats this revolution provocatively and with eloquence. He argues that computers will soon be sufficiently miniaturized and refined to become a genuine extension and improvement upon true human intelligence. An old chestnut proclaims that machines can never equal or even be, in any meaningful sense, at all like the human brain because improvements in computers only add circuitry, while organic intelligence is an ineffable, qualitative something that cannot, in principle, be matched by mere quantitative addition. This may be so, but I join Jastrow in deeming it not inconceivable that what we call wit, wisdom, brilliance, and insight need not have, as its material substrate, any more than a vast increase in the number and connectivity of circuits.

Hegelians and Marxists have long advocated the “transformation of quantity into quality” as a basic dialectical law about the nature of change. Graded inputs need not simply yield graded outputs. Instead, systems often resist change and absorb stresses to a breaking point, beyond which an additional small input may trigger a profound change of state. Water at 50 degrees Centigrade is not half boiling. A computer twice as big as another may not simply keep accounts twice as fast. Our metaphor about straws and camels’ backs reflects an implicit understanding that not all change is continuous.

The previous impediment, Jastrow argues, was not a technological inability to mimic the brain’s operation, but a limitation of size. If organic brains reach human capacities primarily by increasing the number and connectivity of neurons, then computers with enough parts may match our cognitive abilities. But the old vacuum tubes of first-generation computers would have required a behemoth several times larger than New York even to match an australopithecine. Miniaturization is the key to revolution. With ever smaller and more compact silicon chips, computers, Jastrow claims, will soon reach human capacity at human sizes. What then, he asks in a final reverie, would prevent a mortal human from emptying the accumulated evolutionary and social experience of his mind into a machine and achieving electronic immortality? Might silicon-based…

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