Magazine article The Spectator

Silicon Chips with Everything?

Magazine article The Spectator

Silicon Chips with Everything?

Article excerpt

As the digital age gathers pace, a new race is on in the world of technology: to make the most outlandish predictions and to make them before anyone else does. In an industry which prides itself on being forward-thinking, nothing less than a visionary stance will do for any selfrespecting technologist. It is in this context that Charles Jonscher makes predictions that will be truly shocking to many of us. They are that computers will never attain consciousness and will never surpass human minds in their most important pursuits. Common sense would once have deemed such statements unnecessary, but in a few short years they have become almost heretical. They may well go on to become ridiculous.

At the time of going to print, however, they come as a welcome antidote to the ever more hysterical propaganda put out by obsessed technophiles. Jonscher is adamant: the geek shall not inherit the earth. But he gives computers their due. A good part of Wired Life consists of layman's guides to the microchip, artificial intelligence, microwave communications and the physics underlying them all. These have long languished in the backwaters of 'pop' science, and the author goes some way to redressing the imbalance here. Stranger than the now more familiar worlds of the cosmic and the microscopic, the digital age is concerned with the intangible and its currency is information. Like the soul, information is to air as air is to stone. A chip is an ostensibly inert slice of silicon, a machine with no moving parts, and it makes not a sound. The silence is an eerie one even to an insider such as Jonscher. In his hands, the chip and the transistor have all the lyrical potential of the genes and black holes we know and love.

The joy evident in this explication makes his wider thesis all the more surprising. The explosion in computer science is, he argues, merely part of a wider explosion in all areas of human knowledge, As he coolly puts it, `We have seen huge revolutions in the past, and we will no doubt see more in the future.' The crux of his case is that computers, no matter how sophisticated, will never be radically different from the Turing machine. This imaginary device consists of a read-write head under which passes an infinitely long tape marked with 1s and 0s, and in 1935 Alan Turing showed that it could, given sufficient time, solve every computable problem, including those upon which modern supercomputers are brought to bear. It is more than plausible that this kind of number-crunching is far from the essence of conscious thought, let alone conscious feeling. What the brain thinks, however, is even more important than how it does it. Should a machine one day pass the fabled Turing test and display all the outward signs of conscious intelligence, it would be churlish to deny its consciousness. Scepticism in this case would be no more than a prejudice against metal similar to the one we once held against flesh in these matters. And it is no use contending that machines will never pass the test because their province is digital units rather than the fuzzy, analog real world. That simply remains to be seen. Today's propaganda is sometimes tomorrow's news, and the geeks may yet have their day.

Waiting patiently is Ray Kurzweil, confident in the belief that inexorable laws of history are driving us towards science fiction in our time. …

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