Software for the soul

By Richard Cohen
Sunday, March 8, 1998; 12:00 AM

NOT LONG AGO, I ATTENDED the World Economic Forum's annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland. This conference is only incidentally about economics and, really, about almost everything else. To my mind, the sessions on science and medicine are the most rewarding, and so, this year, I went to one about robotics and artificial intelligence in which two of the panelists -- both eminent scientists -- predicted that in due course robots will take over the world. With artificial intelligence, they will be smarter than us and more durable than us, and they could, if they so choose, keep us as pets -- to love, to cherish or, even, to put to sleep.

One of the scientists, Hugo de Garis, apologized for his prediction, but said, as I recall, that he had an obligation to tell the truth. Moreover, he felt an obligation to find the truth, which in his case was to pursue his scientific inquiries as far as they would lead. He was determined to create the very machine that could, ultimately, turn on him -- make him captive or, if he should prove troublesome, make him dead. No matter. He was compelled to press on.

Kevin Warwick of England's Reading University nodded his head in total agreement. He was the one who had predicted how people might become pets, and he suggested further that we will all be treated by robots as we now treat domestic animals. When a few English cows, for instance, were found infected with mad cow disease, lots of cattle were destroyed. This could happen to human beings. If several became infected with some disease in, say, Los Angeles, then the robotic masters of the universe could contain the infection by killing all the people in Los Angeles.

I'll admit that I did not take much cheer from this view of the future. On the other hand, I did take some cheer from this view of the future. That's because the two scientists -- there was a third on the panel whom I'll get to in a minute -- also agreed that in the future, we will not die. The essence of a person will be downloaded onto a disk or into a robot and we will live forever, intellectually and emotionally who we had been but, presumably, plastic and metal where once had been flesh and bone. Of life's two certainties, only taxes would remain inevitable. Science was on the verge of finding the secrets of aging -- and stopping the process dead in its tracks. It was possible, it was conceivable, that I belonged to the last generation that would die.

I feel only a bit cheated at this idea, since, truly, I can not envisage life that is eternal. Life is dear because it is finite, and, anyway, I am a person who goes from one deadline to the next -- column to column to column -- with the big one coming up, a bit faster than I would like. Death gives life meaning and poignancy in the same way that sadness make happiness sweeter.

But I realize -- or, rather, I expect -- that we would emotionally reorganize ourselves in order to accommodate infinite life. People would look back to when human beings died and rue the death of Mozart or Shakespeare and how, had they been born later, they would still be turning out that wonderful music, those wonderful plays.

Yet, here were these two scientists agreeing that those lucky people of the future, the ones who would not die, would be pets or something. Whatever they might be, they would be subordinate to the robots that controlled their fate. This was not my idea of a rosy future.

There was, as I mentioned, a third person on the panel -- John Searle of the University of California at Berkeley -- and he said computers lacked that certain something that was human. They were machines, objects, and while they might win at chess, as IBM's Deep Blue had done, they would not even know they had done so. (So what? said Warwick, what mattered was that Deep Blue had won.)

In truth, as the debate raged, I felt Searle was losing. I wanted him to win, but he seemed romantic, nostalgic -- a scientist with a weakness for such concepts as soul and consciousness. These were qualities a computer lacked and could not have. A computer might be able to write a love poem, but it could not love.

No, scoffed de Garis, as he moved in for the kill. In the future, a computer will be able to duplicate everything human about human beings. The universe is composed of nothing more than molecules -- this combination is love, that combination is fear. Science will find the right combination, unlock the secrets and duplicate it all.

This molecule and that . . . I was struck by this explanation, which seemed, for the several days I played this discussion over and over in my head, so new, so revelatory -- until, days later, I remembered that I had heard it before, in a somewhat different version: "The earth was without form, and void. And darkness was upon the face of the deep . . ."

The machine had been created before.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 1998 Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive