- This book has derived from speculation in various fields — biology, psychology, philosophy, robotics and computer science. Its central thesis — that computers and robots, appropriately configured, can be properly regarded as emerging life-forms — is one that has compelling support in theoretical argument and empirical evidence. It is shown that artificial systems can satisfy a range of necessary criteria by which life is recognized; and that, furthermore, developments in such fields as artificial intelligence (AI) and cybernetics indicate the character of the newly emerging living systems.
- Chapter 1 explores the central question of what is life? Here we see that definitions of living systems are moving away from biochemical towards information-processing interpretations: the most reasonable definitions of life admit the possibility that certain types of artificial systems may be alive.
- In Chapter 2 we find that the emergence of machine life has been prefigured in primitive artefacts and human imagination over the centuries.
- Chapters 3, 4 and 5 describe the character of the emerging artificial living systems in terms of behaviour, anatomy and psychology. It is shown that machines are not only evolving limbs, senses and brains but also minds — cognitive capacities and a potential for emotion and autonomous action in the real world.
- In such circumstances, machines will develop a capacity for suffering (and enjoyment), and we will have to look to the question of computer rights (Chapter 6): we see that this will involve a careful scrutiny of the relationship between human beings and machines.
- Chapter 7 outlines various human responses to the modern development of robots and computers: the responses are often confused and ambivalent — people are being forced to acknowledge the growing competence of machines, but human vanity is also at stake.
- Many people will not find the idea of computer life a convivial doctrine (others will find it both acceptable and exciting). Where there is reaction against the idea, efforts will often be made to provide counter-arguments: some of these are considered, either directly or by implication, in the present book. Many of these responses are variants on two basic arguments — which we may term 'The Argument from Mimicry' and 'The Argument from Entropy'. It is useful to consider these arguments briefly here.
- It is often said that computers and robots are not really intelligent (or alive), that they merely mimic the behaviour of human beings or other animals — as might a puppet or a clockwork doll. But this is partly a matter of degree: it is arguable that where the mimickry is highly successful, and moreover extends to more than one area of behaviour (for example, goal-directed behaviour plus demonstrable elements of cognition), the behaviour is not simply mimicked but duplicated1. A child learning a new word may first, in attempting to pronounce it, mimic a parent; but when the word is used with ease, and in manifest conjunction with the appropriate cognitive mental states, we no longer talk of mimicry. Today it is commonplace for robots to be taught in the industrial environment and we are finding that robot brains (that is, computers) can have cognitive states (see Chapter 5). It follows that where computer models and simulations are sufficiently developed they represent a duplicating, rather than a mimicking, of the behaviour of living creatures: it is difficult, for example, to see how a chess program that consistently beats its creator can be said to be mimicking the behavior2 of the human programmer.
- The 'Argument from Entropy' has, as popular variants, the claims that 'computers only do what you tell them' and that 'you can't get more out of something than you put into it'. These types of claims suggest that computers can never be truly intelligent, creative, take initiatives, choose freely, etc. But today there is abundant evidence to the contrary (some is given in the present book), and the fallacy in the entropy argument can be shown by considering how it used to be applied to life itself.
- It was argued that the Second Law of Thermodynamics (which suggests that natural processes necessarily produce a greater degree of disorder) was in conflict with biological evolution (which produces more highly ordered systems, that is, living creatures), but the Second Law only applies to a 'closed' system, and within a portion of the system there can be a decrease in local entropy. What this means for our purposes is that just as it has been possible for human beings, evolving from brute matter, to become creative, so it is possible for computers, deriving from human beings, to acquire similarly a range of creative (and other) abilities. Computers do not only do what you tell them: they sometimes do more — you sometimes can get more out of something than you put into it.
- The arguments against computer life will be frequently rehearsed, until it is clear that they have been outflanked by events. The emergence of computer life has been envisaged for centuries; it is widely anticipated in the works of writers, artists, philosophers and myth-makers. Today we are witnessing the burgeoning reality of an age-old dream.
In-Page Footnotes ("Simons (Geoff) - Are Computers Alive? Evolution and New Life Forms")
Harvester Press, 1983
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