Classic Computer Magazine Archive CREATIVE COMPUTING VOL. 9, NO. 8 / AUGUST 1983 / PAGE 162

An esoteric ethical excursion. John Lees.

An Esoteric Ethical Excursion

I had volunteered to review Robert Heinlein's The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress for Creative because one of the central characters in the book is an intelligent computer, capable of speech and clearly possessing "free will.' Since I have been an avid reader of science fiction for as long as I have been reading anythins, rereading Mistress continually brought to mind all the other science fiction stories I have read which had as characters intelligent computers. After a while I realized that a great many of these stories contained some kind of reference to intelligent machines, computers, androids, cyborgs, robots or some type of artificially constructed sentience. (This probably represents a bias on my part--this is one type of fiction which appeals strongly to me.)

Now science fiction writers have had a great deal of luck predicting what path our technological evolution will take. Nuclear power, lasers, synchronous communications satellites and, of course, space travel were all predicted well before they became realities. Needless to say, a lot of worthless, totally impossible predictions have also been made; hindsight always excels foresight. Anyway, I am convinced that hidden somewhere in all the garbage and noise of science fiction is the form which our future sentient companions will take. What will it be?

I think I may know, and I'm afraid the credit may have to go to Isaac Asimov for his 1940's creation of the positronic robot. (Isaac already has too much fame for his own good.) A quote from the introduction to I, Robot, Asimov's 1950 collection of his robot stories:

"All that had been done in the midtwentieth century on "calculating machines' had been upset by Robertson and his positronic brain-paths. The miles of relays and photocells had given way to the spongy globe of plantinumiridium about the size of a human brain.'

When I reread that a few days ago, I sat back and thought, "hmmmm.'

I realized that Asimov had started writing his positronic robot stories before even the transistor had been thought of! I looked for a real-world parallel to the above quote and it was not hard to find. We don't have "Positronic brains,' but we're not too far away from having massive computer power in a globe about the size of a human brain.

Compare the ENIAC vacuum tube computer, which filled a room with 18,000 tubes and became operational in 1945, with Hewlett Packard's HP-65 hand-held card reading calculator. Or compare Digital Equipment Corporation's original mini, which filled a cubic meter, with their recently introduced PDP-8 on a single circuit board. Look at the direction of technology: microprocessors, miniature densely packed memories, low power high efficiency circuits. Throw in the opinion of Capt. Grace Hopper and others that the computer of the near future is going to have an architecture of interlinked but asynchronous microcomputers (the human brain has got to work this way) and what do you have?

You have a generation of very small computers that perhaps begin to approach the complexity needed fo "sentience.' Let's say we have a circuit board covered with microprocessors and micro-program stores and another thingie, probably more of a block, which is a very dense high speed random access memory, no doubt one of the new storage technologies. Now take the microprocessor board and crumble it around the memory. Maybe it's a flexible circuit board, maybe just a wiring network encapsulated in potting compound, who knows yet? It will take up less space this way and provide equal access time to the memory for all the micro-processors.

Now to cool this hardware the easiest thing to do would be simply to immerse the whole thing in a container filled with coolant. It's delicate and expensive creation. So put it in the strongest type of container, a spheroid. Attach I/O gear, run power leads to the power supply, run coolant pipes to the refrigeration unit-- these can be conveniently housed in a box below the "brain.' Add locomotion. Energize. Presto Chango! Welcome to the age of intelligent robots!

There are a few technological problems to be overcome before this updated fiction becomes reality, but there is an even larger problem which must be solved before my scenario comes alive. Fellow sci-fi fans will realize that I have failed to include the most important aspect of Dr. Asimov's creation: the Rhree Laws of Robotics. I am very much afraid that I do not see how to include them.

The Three Laws of Robotics

1. A robot may not injure a human being, or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.

2. A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders conflict with the first law.

3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the first or second law.

According to Dr. Asimov, those three laws are inherent in the positronic brain, and such a brain without the First Law is fundamentally unstable. Unfortunately, here in the real-world parallel, things don't work that way. All computers built to date have some form of the Second and Third Laws, although not always in that order. Of course no one has yet manufactured a computer or developed software that remotely qualifies for the label of intelligent or sentient.

But it will happen. How do we instill the First Law in a computer?

Remember that Asimov himself hedges around the First Law in some of his later stories. Should the First Law be applicable to your run-of-the-mill intelligent computer or only to robots; computers with locomotive capability? And how about this one: If we succeed in creating another intelligence, a fellow sentient being, do we have the moral right to ourselves impose on it such a set of laws?

Does humankind have the right to create a race of slaves? For make no mistake --if it is merely a question of techno-logical development--we can do it. There is already at least one other semi-sentient species on Earth with us, the dolphins. Will we treat another species any better than we have treated the dolphins?

Now I will admit that this is a set of highly speculative questions, to say the least. But it is a set of questions that I would prefer that we have answers to when the time comes. One way or another, we are going to run into another intelligence before too much longer. It may be an intelligence which we create, it may be contact with an extraterrestrial intelligence, it may be the simple realization that there is already another intelligence on Earth, but we will not remain alone. I hope that we will not be completely unprepared when the time comes.