Classic Computer Magazine Archive CREATIVE COMPUTING VOL. 10, NO. 11 / NOVEMBER 1984 / PAGE 189

Computers and human evolution. Michael Crichton.

In Nepal today it is possible to hire a man or a donkey to haul a load over narrow mountain trails. Both beasts can carry about the same weight--roughly sixty pounds--for about the same cost--roughly two dollars a day. I mention this odd fact because it is so anachronistic. Westerners sometimes find it slightly shocking to learn that somewhere in the world men and animals still compete for the same jobs and the same wages. It's, well, in-human. Isn't it?

Yet before the Neolithic era, some 7000 years ago, men were the only beasts of burden. It was during the Neolithic that domesticated animals were bred and tamed, and human beings ceased to define themselves as creatures that carried loads. The replacement of men by trained animals must have happened gradually, and if people were shocked or upset by it, they have left no record for us, some six thousand years later.

Indeed, we would have trouble conjuring up sympathy for any Neolithic man who wanted to put a stop to this trend of replacing people with pack animals. From our vantage point, such work is best suited to animals; we think of a man as having greater potential than that. As far as we are concerned, the only reason for a man to do physical labor is because the job is in some way too complex to assign to an animal.

But if you substitute "machine" for "animal" in the statements above, you can quickly provoke an argument. For one thing, the replacement of human activity by machines is much more recent, only a couple of hundred years old. For another, machines are taking over more than just backbreaking labor. They are taking away skilled tasks--and even intellectually skilled tasks--as well.

We have had centuries to become comfortable with the idea of letting animals pull the plow and to acquire bolstering prejudices against manual labor. But today, in less than a generation, we are starting to see machines that can, for example, read an X-ray as skillfully as a trained physician--and perhaps better. In many segments of society, these machines are producing extreme discomfort that has nothing to do with losing a job; it has to do with ideas of what is proper for human beings to do, and indeed what human beings are. Reading an X-ray is not a brutish task. It just isn't. And yet a machine can now do it.

And when you show up in the Emergency Room with a broken leg at 2:00 a.m., the machine is there; it doesn't have to be called in or awakened, and it will read your X-ray just as freshly as it would have that morning, or the day before. If you have ever worried about these things or had to wait in pain, you may find yourself guiltily preferring the machine over the poor human radiologist who is now out of a job.

These considerations suggest that at every level, the competition of man and machines will not be as simple as most people anticipate it will be. We have already seen some groups of people rather eagerly taking up computers; writers are a clear example. It turns out that nearly everyone who writes and types has no affection for the tasks of rewriting the retyping. A machine that makes those jobs easier is quickly embraced.

Indeed, I think it is most striking to see the wide range of people who are becoming involved with computers with no particular clear goal or need. After some thought, I have concluded that they sense that the computer can do for them what the computer has done for writers and for some businessmen. It can free them from being intellectual beasts of burden, from doing repetitive, tedious, mundane tasks.

In fact, I would argue that it is a force of human evolution, opening new possibilities for our minds, simultaneously freeing us from drudgery while presenting us with a parody of our own rational sides. Computers actually show us both the benefits and the limits of rationality with wonderful precision. What could be more rational than that pedantic little box that keeps saying SYNTAX ERROR over and over? And what does our frustration suggest to us, in terms of other things to do and other ways to be?

The possibilities are limitless.