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Robot
Mere Machine to Transcendent Mind
By Hans Moravec
Oxford. 227 pp. $25
Reviewed by Charles Platt, whose most recent book is the science-fiction novel "The Silicon Man."


Sunday, November 8, 1998

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Ten years ago, Hans Moravec's exceptional book "Mind Children" secured his status as a truly radical techno-visionary. This respected computer scientist, cofounder of the Institute of Robotics at Carnegie-Mellon University, went far beyond the usual speculative limits as he described long-term consequences of artificial intelligence in a cheerful, offhand style that seemed calculated to shock. Here, for example, is his vision of a robot surgeon peeling a living brain to harvest its data: "Layer after layer the brain is simulated, then excavated. Eventually your skull is empty, and the surgeon's hand rests deep in your brainstem. Though you have not lost consciousness, or even your train of thought, your mind has been removed from the brain and transferred to a machine." Nightmarish? On the contrary, Moravec presented this as a desirable metamorphosis, liberating mere humans from the crippling limitations of their biology.

Joseph Weizenbaum, professor emeritus at MIT's Artificial Intelligence Lab, disliked Moravec's interest in "perfecting" human beings and warned that "Mind Children" was as dangerous as "Mein Kampf." Certainly the book was a hard act to follow. But now Moravec returns with "Robot," a more sober yet even more far-reaching study of the social impact of devices with superior brainpower.

The first half of the book is heavy on facts and history in support of Moravec's central tenet: that the development of smart computers is inevitable, despite slow progress so far. "Past machines were simpler than bacteria," he writes, "and are as misleading a guide to future robot mentality as bacteria are to human psychology."

Currently he estimates that our best robots exhibit insect-level behavior. Within 40 years, he predicts, we will have mass-marketed artificially intelligent companions, far more trustworthy and amiable than their human counterparts. "There may be sound business reasons for giving robots a platonic love of their owners," he writes, "similar to the loyalty bred into domestic dogs."

But it won't stop there. Moravec analyzes corporate functions and finds that white-collar administrators can be displaced by expert systems, just as some blue-collar workers have found their jobs acquired by industrial robots. "Humans have been upwardly mobile in the jobs pyramid, but will soon be squeezed out of the apex," he writes. Still, he sees nothing alarming in this, since the concept of work is a relatively recent invention, unknown before our ancestors developed agriculture. Their hunter-gatherer predecessors led comparatively indolent lives, picking berries or catching fish – activities that we regard today as recreational. Thus, according to Moravec, "Many trends in industrialized countries lead to a future where humans are supported by machines, as our ancestors were by wildlife . . . . The primary job of humanity in the next century will be protecting its retirement benefits by ensuring continued cooperation from the robot industries. . . . Our tribal past prepared us well for lives as idle rich."

By 2100, however, Moravec foresees the end of this golden sunset of humanity as rogue robots escape into space and create their own civilization, swiftly outdistancing us as the dominant species in the solar system. "Human intelligence is based on squirting chemicals," he notes condescendingly, arguing that quantum computing systems will be immensely faster, infinitely smarter and highly competitive. They will render us extinct – yet may remember us with such nostalgia that they'll spare a fraction of their computational resources to run simulations of our entire reality. Far-fetched? Not necessarily. Moravec figures that simulating one human brain would require 100 million megabytes. Multiply this by the number of people alive today, and you need 10-to-the-power-of-28 bits of data to simulate the entire world population – which would be doable if atomic particles were used for data storage. Thus, an expanding population of omnivorous, microscopic, artificially intelligent entities "can easily recreate internally everything of interest it encounters, memorizing the old universe as it consumes it."

"Robot" is a far more ambitious book than its prosaic title suggests, beginning in the recent past, progressing through an immediate future that is outlined with compelling clarity, and depicting an ultimate destiny that ventures into metaphysics. Some of the concepts strain credulity, yet the chain of logic is meticulous and unbroken.

This is a unique, authoritative exercise in extrapolation, easily understood yet stunning in scope. If Moravec is correct, our current intellectual superiority is as shaky as the status of Gary Kasparov immediately before his embarrassing defeat by a computer program that replaced him as the world chess champion. Readers who are middle-age or older may be the last generation of humanity whose overall intellectual superiority will remain unchallenged. Anyone looking for a head-bending excursion beyond the cutting edge of science will find ample thought-provoking material in this outstanding book.

   
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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