Ronda Hauben on 19 Sep 2000 20:28:38 -0000

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Re: <nettime> The Age of Spiritual Machines (Review)

Felix Stalder <> writes:

>Let's start with the interesting part. Kurzweil forecasts three technical
>developments to convergence, leading to the creation of computers that are
>intelligent in the way most humans are. First, around 2020, $1000 dollars
>will buy a computer that will have roughly the same processing power as the
>human brain. The underlying equation is the surprisingly simple. Roughly,

I heard Kurzweil speak at the PC Expo held in NYC in June.

It was interesting as he was a snake oil salesman, claiming that the
trends proved that there would be the superiority of machines over humans
in a few decades, but denying any of the qualities of the human that the
machine can't achieve, at least for quite some time, if ever.

It was good Felix that you point out the lack of any social awareness on
Kurzweil's part.

But his technical understanding is also flawed.

His projection is based on assuming that the human brain only has the
capability of doing algorithmic activity.

The issues Kurzweil raises go back to a discussion that went on 40 years
ago before there was interactive computing. And the results of the
discussion led to interactive computing. While Kurzweil is trying to take
us backwards 40 years.

The discussion was about the two types of thinking that the human brain
was capable of -- algorithmic and heuristic activity.

The algorithmic activity was something that computers could be programmed
to do and they could do this kind of activity much faster than humans.

This involved very fast computations, and logical operations etc.

However, the human brain can also do another kind of thinking.

The human brain is capable of heuristic activity.

This has to do with, for example, the ability to formulate a question that
will get at the roots of a difficult problem. This is the kind of thinking
that goes on when one has little to go on about what the problem is, but
one goes through a process of determining how to get to the essential
piece of the problem and to phrase a question or area of approarch that
can be fruitful.

This is what happens when there has been little previous thinking done on
a problem, and the human brain has to pioneer a new area of thought or
determine how to tackle a new scientific question, etc.

This requires dealing with uncertainty, making some progress, determining
that no the formulation of the problem is not quite good enough, going
back to try to sort out what the essential issues are, etc.

This is where the human intuition is most needed and most utilized.

This is not the kind of thinking that a computer can do, and yet this is
essential type of thinking to solve social problems of all kinds,
especially scientific problems.

This type of thinking was recognized by pioneers like JCR Licklider as
being crucial to the process of determining how to develop science and

He also recognized the outstanding ability of computers to do the kind of
algorithmic processes that computers could perform.

Licklider did a study of the kind of thinking he as a scientist and
moderately technical person did and determined that there was a need for
both forms of thinking, for the two types of thinking to be intertwined in
order to both formulate difficult problems and to solve them.

He wrote a paper describing his study. The paper is titled "Man-Computer
Symbiosis" and it was published in March of 1960.

In the paper he argued for the cooporation between the human and the
computer systems, for a symbiotic relationship between the two species, as
the way that would make it possible for the best of the human brain and
the best of the computer's capability to be utilized to augment the
intellectual power available to the world.

And in this paper he also put forward a technical program for doing
technical research that would make it possible for the human and the
computer to interact. Licklider's goal was to change the computer paradigm
from the old form of batch processing where the human was denied access to
the computer, to the new form of interactive computing, where humans and
computers would be part of a partnership.

Fortunately Licklider was brought to ARPA and given support to create the
Information Processing Techniques Office (IPTO) there and to start a
research program at selected universities around the US where he would
support researchers working to create interactive computing.

Licklider's goal of supporting the best of the human and the best of the
computer and making it possible for them to work cooperatively led to the
creation of time sharing communities.

Then he realized that something unexpected had happened. That humans
facilitated by computers were able to cooperate on heuristic activity, to
collaborate to be able to formulate the question in difficult problems.

And he saw this as some of what was needed, the increasing collaborative
activity of humans to solve the most difficult problems, and to involved
the computers in the formulation of the problems in the ways that became

This is the work that was done creating the early time sharing communities
like Project MAC at MIT, and this then led to working to link up those
communities, which was the earliest work on creating computer networking,
on creating the ARPANET.

While great progress has been made on having the computer do algorithmic
activity, and there is also progress in having the computer and the online
computer facilitated human to human collaborative activity, there is
little progress in having computers on their own be able to formulate the
question in especially difficult problems.

And while Kurzweil may know of activity in mapping aspects of what the
human brain can do, the human brain has millions of elements that are
interconnected in ways that are not yet understood.

So the grand claims of Kurzweil, and the lack of any attention to the
history of where the computer developments of our time have come from and
why the human-computer symbiosis has been such an important basis for both
human and technical development, shows that he is lacking in technical
knowledge, as well as in social awareness.

Licklider talked about how the socio-technical pioneers that he saw
functioning online in ways to create important new ways of communicating
utilizing the online forms.

Licklider realized the importance of social awareness and purpose and that
that was the problem that had to be recognized and tackled to make
progress developing the technology. He said the technical problems were
the easy ones, but to make progress with them one needed to take on the
social problems and dimensions of the technical problems.

Since Kurzweil is so arrogant that there are no social concerns, and that
the technical can be achieved without the understanding of the broad
social problems that the technical develop within, it seems that he can
provide lots of hype, but little that is useful.

Since he has no regard for the history of our current computer science and
information science, and cybernetic developments, he is like an organism
that has amnesia or even ataxia.

What I heard him promising was that devices would be able to be inserted
in the brain that would give the sensation of pleasure.

That is like drugs, rather than a vision that recognizes that the
pioneering vision for the computer was that it would augment human
intellectual power.

It is interesting that the kind of commercial focus of the US computer
industry leads them to bring him to speak at their expo's and to spread
his hype.

But that doesn't provide any insight for people as to the important
developments which we have achieved over the past 40 years since the
publication of Licklider's seminal paper and the research program he
initiated at ARPA/IPTO, nor does it help people to understand that the
human brain is a very ingenious system that has resulted from millions of
years of development, nor of the great advantage that has come to society
from the human-computer symbiosis paradigm that Licklider proposed in his
1960 paper.


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