Non-Fiction Reviews

The Human Computer

(1999) Mark Jeffery, Little Brown, 17.99, hrdbk, 266pp, ISBN 0-316-64843-4

I'm torn in two directions regarding this book, largely informed by my own prejudices and other reading in the field of artificial intelligence. Jeffery confirms some of my ideas, in that he believes that the current efforts to produce AI will not succeed because the programming approach is fundamentally flawed. At best, I suspect, we would be successful only in producing a "dumb" AI, which is to say something like a very sophisticated 'expert' system. On the other hand he feels that "true" AI could be produced, complete with consciousness, emotions, and creativity, largely through a more flexible approach to the software architecture, and some hardware improvements.

The thing that makes me uneasy about his arguments is that they seem to depend on a reductionist idea of what constitutes intelligence, creativity, emotions and consciousness, and then some vague hope that from humble beginnings complexity will emerge. A nice idea, and not necessarily far off the money, but still, perhaps, a little too simplistic. Neither does there seem much point in creating the kind of AI Jeffery would like to see -- genetics achieves the same aims, without all the hardware, ie. it seems to me that the AIs he's interested in producing would not be substantially superior to humans. Also he assumes a certain amount of predictability about what these AIs would be like -- and that is, in my opinion, dangerously stupid.

Finally, despite an intriguing final section, Jeffery never really examines why we would want to build an AI. Just because we can? Do we have a goal and, if so, what will a true AI think about that? Personally, I wouldn't be surprised if it told us to fuck off (and I'd be inclined to be on its side if it did), and that might be the only indication we ever received that we'd succeeded. Let's not deceive ourselves here; whenever we talk about creating AI, we are in fact talking about creating life. To say that we might have some moral and ethical considerations is surely understating the matter considerably. Jeffery seems to want the 'comfortable' slave approach, whereby we brainwash the entity before it's even 'born'. That doesn't sit well with me and, I suspect, would disturb others in our society even more.

A strange book, then, and a bit slim for the price, but nonetheless intriguing.

Tony Chester

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