It’s Alive!

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“It’s not just that computers seem to be infiltrating every aspect of our lives,” writes Sue Halpern in the Review’s April 2, 2015, issue, reviewing Nicholas Carr’s book The Glass Cage: Automation and Us. “It’s that they have infiltrated them and are infiltrating them with breathless rapidity. It’s not just that life seems to have speed up, it’s that it has. And that speed, and that infiltration, appear to have a life of their own.”

Over the years contributors to The New York Review have looked at the birth of mechanical life, the question of whether computers may be said to “live” at all, and the ways in which technology might, someday, grow up. A selection of readings on these subjects is presented below.

Jennifer Schuessler

February 13, 2003

The eighteenth century was “the golden age of the philosophical toy,” and its most celebrated engineer was Jacques de Vaucanson. For Vaucanson, recreating life meant imitating its processes and movements—most famously, its bowel movements. While he entertained audiences with automata that played the flute and the organ, his most celebrated invention was a copper duck that realistically “gulped” food through a flexible neck and then excreted it on a silver platter. First displayed in 1739, the duck caused a sensation. “Without the shitting duck,” Voltaire quipped, “there would be nothing to remind us of the glory of France.”

John R. Searle

April 29, 1982

A computer can simulate the formal properties of the sequence of chemical and electrical phenomena in the production of thirst just as much as it can simulate the formal properties of anything else—we can simulate thirst just as we can simulate hurricanes, rainstorms, five-alarms fires, internal combustion engines, photosynthesis, lactation, or the flow of currency in a depressed economy. But no one in his right mind thinks that a computer simulation of a five-alarm fire will burn down the neighborhood, or that a computer simulation of an internal combustion engine will power a car or that computer simulations of lactation and photosynthesis will produce milk and sugar.

Edward Rothstein

December 6, 1979

If life can grow out of the formal chemical substrate of the cell, if consciousness can emerge out of a formal system of firing neurons, then so too, Douglas Hofstadter seems to argue, will computers attain human intelligence. In a rudimentary way, the elementary formal systems of the computer already hint at the complexities of intelligence (perhaps because they have been designed intelligently).

Paul Goodman

November 20, 1969

“Scientific technology” occupies a bastard position in the universities, in funding, and in the public mind. It is half tied to the theoretical sciences and half treated as mere know-how for political and commercial purposes. It has no principles of its own. To remedy this technology must have its proper place on the faculty as a learned profession important in modern society, along with medicine, law, the humanities, and natural philosophy, learning from them and having something to teach them.

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