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Humans & machines: a daydream August 29, 2011

Posted by larry in Uncategorized.
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I was watching a not very good film the other evening about a machine, a fighter jet, that becomes cognitively independent of its designers, and it brought back a childhood nostalgia about having a machine as one’s best friend and companion, not as a replacement for people but as an addition, better than an intelligent dog to talk to and do things with.  When the main character and the machine act in concert in order to save the mission and the machine, the image began to acquire a sepia tinged aspect.  I also felt this way about the scene in the Mexican desert in Terminator 2 while Sarah Connor’s voiceover is describing her feelings about the relationship between the terminator and her young son. Somehow I wished such a relationship were actually possible in the real world in which I then lived.

This might be felt to reflect a friendless childhood, but that would be false.  I didn’t fit into my community, but I wasn’t a misfit either.  I tended to live in the future rather than the present or the past, believing neither of them to be the “best they could be”.  This reflects a deeply underlying optimism on my part although I did not recognize this when young. Two major influences on my early cognitive development were Bertrand Russell and Arthur C. Clarke. Russell’s initial influence wasn’t his technical philosophy, that came later, but his commentaries on life and common beliefs and social practices, such as Marriage and Morals and Unpopular Essays. As for Clarke, it was Childhood’s End and The City and the Stars. And a short story, “Before Eden”.

I have never felt the same sort of nostalgia for Asimov’s robot or foundation series, however intellectually interesting I felt them to be. Since I view robots as another way of being intelligent like humans, I was depressed by Asimov’s story of the robot who wanted to be human and acquire human frailties. One of Asimov’s great innovations in his robot series was the accidental/serendipitous discovery of the positronic brain. This relieved him of the necessity of having to try and describe how the thing worked. It could be programmed with the three laws but any deep understanding of how the brain actually functioned wasn’t there.  While I thought this to be rather clever, there was something rather mundane about Asimov’s robots. THey failed to stimulate my imagination in the same way as Clarke’s 2001 or the film, Terminator 2.  In 2001, it wasn’t HAL that captured my imagination, but the aliens, those “frozen lattices of light” as Clarke was later to characterize them.

For a person who effectively lives in the future, believing deeply that it will be better (at least in principle), while the present has wonderful delights, even the best of all presents can never fully suffice – one is too attentive to its imperfections. Such a person is perhaps better able to see the past unidealisitically and thus to be free of yearning for it. Yearning for the past, which is a mistake in general, is replaced by yearning for the future. Should either of these mental states be too dominant, it may not be possible to live as “happily” in one’s present, which is all that you have, as might otherwise be the case.

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