THE encounter with the drive-thru automated teller began innocently. The machine declared, straightforwardly, that it could not provide a receipt, and gave the option of not continuing. I continued, got the cash, and then glanced at the screen. This is what I saw: IT IS ALWAYS A PLEASURE TO SERVE YOU.
I recoiled in alarm. Pleasure??? Wasn't this just a machine? Since when can a collection of wires and transistors experience an emotion? Was this not a chilling harbinger of the world to come, where the most intelligent creatures are made not of blood and tissue but of silicon? (And finally, did it feel a slight pang of guilt or shame for not being able to give me a receipt?)
The emergence of artificial intelligence is something we all need to monitor constantly, along with the renaissance of the Redskins (as I've said all along, Norv Turner is the next Vince Lombardi) and the eternal battle between good and evil (represented this weekend by the Ryder Cup). The danger is that we'll concentrate too much on "breaking` stories, like the withdrawal of Dan Quayle from the presidential race (I don't think he got a receipt, either), and will fail to notice a more historically significant development, like the fact that the vacuum cleaner has just turned on the television and is now watching The Learning Channel.
For the moment, machines don't think, or at least they don't think with much passion. The ATM, as it relays a message from the bank managers, has no awareness of what it's saying. If an ATM says it loves you, remember: It's just using you.
Still, there are those who feel that in principle a conscious, thinking computer can be constructed. They say the human brain is an elaborate machine, that there are no mysterious forces at work. This morning I asked Daniel Dennett, author of "Brain Children: Essays on Designing Minds,` if machines will soon be thinking, and he immediately seized upon the inadequate architecture of the question.
`In some regards, computers already think. They solve problems. In fact, they can solve some problems that even 'thinking' does not solve,` he said.
`If you mean having an inner life like ours, and having sensuous experiences, then the answer is no. Is it possible? Yes, I think it is. But are we there yet? No.`
A robot named "Cog` at M.I.T., he said, "is about as close as we've gotten to a sentient, experiencing robot, and I would say that on the crude scale of microbe to bug to human being, it's a bug-like sentience. And there's no principled reason why it can't have a lot more sensory experience.`
Dennett is just one voice in the debate, and there are others, the Mysterians, who claim that even if you designed a companionable, problem-solving, joke-cracking computer, it would still lack that amazing thing we call consciousness. It would be a clever zombie, in essence.
I think that, in addition to the question of whether machines will someday think like people, there is a second issue that should concern us: People thinking like machines.
The new special issue of Forbes ASAP, titled "The Great Convergence,` features all manner of wild, hyperventilating predictions of future technologies, including a piece by the film critic Roger Ebert:
`Tiny computer chips will be implanted soon after birth, hard-wired into the cortex, and parents will teach their child to log on before they can talk.`
We'll have the Internet in our heads.
`A person who starts talking to himself on the subway will not be schizoid; he'll be making a call.`
Already the human experience is converging with the behavior of machines. Sitting in our ergonomic chairs with 18 settings for pitch, roll and yaw, tapping on our keyboards all day long, handling the mouse, speaking into headsets, getting paged by satellites, watching numbers and words scroll by on our screens - all this is harrowingly akin to being an appendage of a vast apparatus. We are now applications, part of the bundled software.
Even e-mail has changed. Five years ago the typical e-mail message was longer. The messages were more like letters. But then everyone got wired, the messages proliferated, shortened, and now everyone just communicates in short, blurting, binary sentences. "You say goodbye, I say hello.`
The good news is that, even if the human brain is a machine, it's much more complex than anything we've ever designed. Our brains have 100 billion neurons, roughly speaking (I'm not sure if I can count the ones I killed this weekend). No machine could experience the odd mix of pleasure and sadness that most viewers probably felt watching Saturday Night Live's 25th Anniversary show.
The artificial intelligence guru Marvin Minsky, in John Brockman's book "The Third Culture,` says, "Each part of the brain is what engineers call a kludge - that is, a jury-rigged solution to a problem, accomplished by adding bits of machinery wherever needed, without any general, overall plan. The result is that the human mind - which is what the brain does - should be regarded as a collection of kludges.`
So the genius of the brain may be that it's not designed to give you cash and a receipt, or anything so simple and practical as that. It's a Rube Goldberg contraption that no bank manager would want on the property. It's not the perfections of the brain that make it great, but the imperfections.
Remember that the next time you have an encounter with an emoting ATM. Look that machine square in the electronic display and say: "Oh, shut up.`
Rough Draft is electronically generated by a software program called AutoMuse on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.