Thursday, January 15, 2009

The equanimy of the cyborg

The science fiction literature is permeated by the recurrent theme of the "evil computer": in its most sophisticated and interesting forms it appears in incarnations such as the famous Hal-9000 computer of "2001: a space odyssey", while the range of dystopian visions encompasses nearly everything from Dick's "Vulcan hammer", to the many cheap Star Trek episodes with evil computer controlling the lives of various planetary civilizations waiting for their individuality to be rescued by passer by interstellar battlecruisers. In truth it is hard to tell why this luddite image of fascistic machine came to dominate the genre: a very nice analysis of this phenomenon can be found, for example, in the book "The cybernetic imagination in science fiction" that I reviewed some time ago in this blog. It is a pity that computers are almost universally assigned the villain role in this kind of literature. In fact, there is a much more benign form of narrative figure to be associated to the sentient machine, which is far closer to today's reality and tomorrow's likely developments than the dictator's role.

What I refer to here is the unique capacity of the "sentient machine" to be devoid of prejudice. One can see how that increasingly comes to play a crucial role in today's society. Personally, whenever I have a choice between conducting a transaction, be it of an economic type or a simple search for information, if I am given the choice between conducting that through a human being or a machine, I most certainly and without hesitation choose the machine. Why? Well, for a very simple reason. A machine does not look at your skin color, your gender, your age, your apparent social class, ethnicity, accent, place of origin and all that before interacting with you. It does not filter its reaction to your request through this thick and impenetrable filter of perviously existing categories. A machines receives a question and produces an answer and the answer it is likely to produce is completely independent on all these other factors, which instead invariably color an answer to the very same question, as simple and objective as it may be, presented to a human being.

In my professional work as a scientist, google is my best friend and most reliable source of information. I invariably noticed over and over again how I get a lot more information, more efficiently and reliably, by asking my questions to google than by asking them to the supposed experts in the field. Google sends me quickly and precisely to the point in these people's papers where what I need is discussed, while any attempt at asking a direct question to the people behind the science gets so distorted by the endless amount of stereotypical thinking and cultural prejudices these people harbor in their minds that it becomes essentially impossible to get at the answer in any effective way.

I think it is high time to start portraying the sentient machine in our literary texts for what it really is, a step forward from the quagmire of human ugliness and prejudices, a pure state of thought where thought and knowledge is what really matters and no room for stereotyping is allowed to interfere. It is time to launch an appeal to all science fiction writers to ditch the "fascistic machine" theme once and for all, and replace it with the "equanimous cyborg" theme, whereby the sentient machine finally allows mankind to transcend its heavy baggage of repression (fascistic that one yes, not the machine) prejudice, discrimination.

There are indeed works of fiction where sentient computers are portrayed in a more interesting way than as enslavers of the human race. For example, in Lem's "Golem XIV" a generation of sentient machines arising from military research refuses to continue serving warfare research and start philosophizing. In a series of lectures delivered to a human audience, the mahine called Golem XiV attempts to explain its role as a bridge between human intelligence and levels far beyond its reach, a veritable Nietzschean "bridge between the beast and the super-human". There is a very interesting book of commentaries to Lem's Golem, written by the German philosopher Bernd Gräfrath, "Lems Golem: Parerga und Paralipomena" which gives a detailed analysis of several philosophical themes arising in the Golem lectures.

"Golem XIV" is an intriguing book like most of Lem's production, but it still remains far from the point of view I wish to advocate here. As far as I know, the theme of human-machines communication as a way to circumvent and transcend human prejudice and facilitate communication between human beings through the intervention of the non-human has never been really developed in the fictional literature, although it is already widely present and playing an increasingly important role in present day society.