Just a quick post to wish everyone Happy Holidays.  I hope you’re all healthy, happy, and warm!


Actor Tom Hiddleston posted this lovely video yesterday, musing about how small it makes one feel. Beautiful planet, indeed. I am of course always reminded of Carl Sagan, who was I think a lover first, and a scientist second…

“For small creatures such as we the vastness is bearable only through love.” — Carl Sagan

Strange Children

Or: What the Future Holds, In 1000 Words or Less

Whenever I am privy to discussions about artificial intelligence, I am reminded of the words of a comedian I saw on television once: “You know, I always thought that the brain was the most fascinating organ in the human body. But then I realized: Look what’s telling me that…”

I’ve been thinking about this a lot since attending Cyberfest, a week-long “birthday party” for HAL, certainly the best-known character in the legendary film 2001: A Space Odyssey (monoliths don’t count as characters), and probably the best-known computer in the world. Taking cue from Arthur C. Clarke’s novel, which placed HAL’s birth on January 12, 1997 in Urbana-Champaign, the University of Illinois organized a week of activities that spanned the disciplines in celebration of the fictional event. Not surprisingly, most participants focused on HAL’s breakdown, and why thinking machines are really scary. Some attempted to draw parallels between HAL’s apparent malfunction and certain human psychological conditions. Others, enthusiastically embracing the idea of AI, struggled with the reasons why HAL’s non-fiction counterparts don’t already exist.

That someday something resembling HAL will exist seemed a foregone conclusion to all. Approaches varied. Dr. Stephen Wolfram, Beckman fellow and creator of Mathematica, believes that AI goals remain frustratingly out of reach not due to some ineffable and uniquely human quality to “intelligence,” but rather due to an equally inexplicable assumption: The assumption that, in order to think, it must think like we do. Citing recent breakthroughs in cloning as examples, he theorizes that advances in AI, as well as in other areas of science long plagued by unanswered fundamental questions, will come from radically new approaches toward their resolution.

Others, including Ray Kurzweil, Murray Campbell of IBM’s Deep Blue team, and the NEC’s David Kuck disagree, insisting that greater understanding of how the human mind works and learns is necessary for the creation of an artificial intelligence. Some even foresee an eventual merging of creator and creation: Kuck envisions implants designed to enhance certain physical abilities becoming popular, populating suburbs everywhere with “bionic men and women” and blurring the line between the biological and the artificial; Kurzweil (sharing a vision with MIT researcher Marvin Minsky) imagines a future in which personalities are housed in metal casings not too unlike the one housing this word processor, leaving their flesh and blood packaging behind.

Hans Moravec explored similar territory in his 1988 book Mind Children, and it was in this book that he made the prediction that machines will evolve beyond their creators. While describing his current work on what I imagine to be an armada of little robot Merry Maids, Moravec made it clear during his turn at the podium that his opinion has not been altered in the intervening years, pointing out that the raw computing power required to match the processing capabilities of the brain will soon be available. Nothing indicates that the upward climb won’t continue.

This prompted some to ask: “Why would we let it continue?” This is an interesting question, I think, and links up somewhere with the idea that there will be one big computer – call it HAL or Skynet or Colossus – that will be the one to wake up and decide we don’t measure up. I think that our demands for more convenience, faster connections and more free time will dictate that the advances in processing will continue, and will in turn require more from our machines. Moravec’s house-cleaning drones, for example, will be designed to learn from their mistakes, and possibly from others’ through informational exchange. What other things might they learn and tell one another about, as they become more sophisticated? I don’t think there will be one monstrous machine tormenting us, but rather many little ones surprising us.

As I sit and write this I remember sitting in the darkened Virginia Theater in Champaign and being struck suddenly by how child-like HAL seemed to me. Was he really testing Dave and Frank, or was he trying to tell them his secret when he asked if the mission hadn’t seemed irregular to them? Was he, as Roger Ebert asserted, the only “human” character in the film, or was he merely not as adept at deceit as his more mature companions? When we do create things we can all agree are intelligent, will we expect too much of them too soon, lacking any compassion for our little prodigy progeny, while always expecting the worst from them?

Clarke joked, when asked about the discrepancy between the dates the movie and the book give for HAL’s “birth” (The movie gives the year as 1992), that “they would never send a nine-year-old computer on a mission like that.” It’s interesting to ponder what his words would mean if we did find that these little silicon entities still needed to be raised: They would face the ironic probability that their bodies had become outmoded well before their minds reached maturity. What a human fate.

As interesting as anything currently on the horizon from the world of science is our reaction to having caught sight of it and, as we have come closer to reaching the AI promised land, our fear at arriving has transformed the dream of the Electric Grandmother into the nightmare of the Terminator. Reality will likely incorporate both, and neither. And, as much as we howl that we are unique, we will surely share something with these strange offspring. They will, after all, be in some way a part of us – either literally or figuratively. If we can let ourselves recognize this, we may begin to put our fears to rest.

All of this is based, of course, on the musings of a woman madly missing her own children, trapped in a room full of strangers. Yet it really does seem that in this case a little anthropomorphizing wouldn’t hurt – but look what’s telling you that.

[Originally published in February, 1997 by Panorama Inc., and re-printed with permission in the June 1997 edition of Incommunicado: the e-zine.]

In less than a month, my mother will be losing her home. A failed marriage, subsequent loss of health insurance, and illnesses almost certainly resulting from decades of smoking all played a part. After a few years of making fast dashes down to fill my car with the irreplaceable – photographs; handmade furniture and instruments – I can’t say that it is unexpected. Even so, it’s a painful loss — for my family as a whole, I’m sure, and for me personally.

For almost forty years, the little bungalow at 716 South Star was my grandparents’ home. They raised my mother, their only child, in it. It was there that they retired, and welcomed grandchildren into their lives. It saw all the joys and sorrows they experienced over the decades, and became for them a symbol of the renewed life they began together in middle age.

I remember it as a warm, loving and wondrous place, comfortable and safe from the tumultuous life we led at home. Holidays spent there were filled with delicious scents and delightfully kitschy decorations. Summer vacations were spent in the garden, harvesting tomatoes that seemed as big as my head, or staying up late with my grandfather, playing Chinese checkers while Johnny Carson cracked jokes on the small black-and-white television that sat in the corner. And year-round, it was filled with music — the music of my grandmother singing, or of my grandfather playing one of the myriad instruments he played so well.

It sits silent now. The garden, my grandparent’s pride, lapsed into weedy ruin years ago. Soon, the house will be bought and demolished, making way for a new home or, perhaps, the lot will simply remain a vacant one — one of many to pop up in that area in recent years. Anyone who knew me growing up knows that not all that happened in that house was happy, and of course there’s much that took place there about which I am far from nostalgic. Still, the house had always been, for me, a tangible connection to happy times, and to my grandparents, with whom I was very close.

In a month, it will be just a memory I carry around with me, or a faded photograph that I bore my children with when the evening wanes and conversation turns to questions about what it was like “back in The Day.” That thought leaves me breathless with sadness. To paraphrase a line from one of my favorite movies, it’s like my grandparents are dying all over again, and I am heartbroken.

[Originally written July, 2009. This piece appears here in slightly modified form.]