Bennahum and Holt

Bennahum and Holt

New books dissected over email.
Jan. 4 1999 1:32 PM

Bennahum and Holt

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Dear David,

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Let me begin with an earnest question: What good are computers? A reasonable wish is that they might help ease Adam's curse by, say, enabling us to produce more goods and services with less labor. So far, though, they have failed to do this. The enormous investment that American businesses have made in computers over the last couple of decades has yet to yield any detectable economic dividends. As one economist put it, "You can see the computer age everywhere but in the productivity statistics." The best estimate of the contribution computers have made to economic growth is a miserable .15 percent a year. (See, for instance, Daniel E. Sichel's The Computer Revolution: An Economic Perspective, the Brookings Institute Press, 1998.) This is quite embarrassing when set beside the hyperbolic claims of Al Gore, Alvin Tofller, and George Gilder, who insist that the computer revolution is as momentous as the earlier transition from an agricultural to an industrial economy.

Computers have made possible the "information highway," but what good is that? Very little information--some literature, some science--is intrinsically valuable. The rest is valuable only instrumentally and differentially, insofar as I have it and you do not. When such information becomes universally available its value drops to zero.

Since computers have so far been a disappointment when it comes to making better and cheaper widgets, it is not surprising that those who are existentially committed to the machines should retreat to spiritual grounds. Thus the appearance of books like the two we are discussing, which argue that lying just over the horizon is a golden age in which computers will become our "mind children." Our mechanical creations will presently exceed us in intelligence and blossom into full self-consciousness, we are told. By an ill-defined process called "downloading" (or sometimes "uploading") we will be able to extract our personal essences from the piece of meat in our skulls and install them in the new generation of computers, thereby obtaining immortality, not to mention better sex. All of this will happen in the next 50 years--that is guaranteed by the "exponential law of computing."

Such extravagant claims for the metaphysical potential of computers have a slightly moldy odor about them. Way back in the Eisenhower administration, the Nobel laureate Herbert Simon, one of the fathers of Artificial Intelligence, was already claiming that by writing computer programs that could deduce theorems in elementary geometry he had resolved the mind-body problem. Even before Watergate and disco, Marvin Minsky, another patron saint of AI, proclaimed that "In from three to eight years we will have a machine with the general intelligence of an average human being." Okay, Deep Blue did beat Kasparov in chess, but no computer today, however festooned with sensors and servo-mechanisms, can do what any child can: move the chess pieces from square to square. Nor can the most sophisticated software do so much as understand a simple story in English.

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Given AI's history of hype and unrealized sci-fi fantasy, we can, I think, be forgiven for taking such futuristic visions in these two books with a pinch of salt. Or can you, David, give me a reason for thinking that computers really will add "extra life"? I ask with no ulterior prejudice, but in the sprit of pure inquiry.

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David Bennahum is the author of
Extra Life: Coming of Age in Cyberspace
. Jim Holt writes about science and philosophy for Lingua Francaand the Wall Street Journal. This week they discussWhen Things Start To Think,by Neil Gershenfeld (Henry Holt; 224 pages; $25) andThe Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence, by Ray Kurzweil (Viking; 352 pages; $24.95).