Saturday, January 30, 2010

Technology and the Geezer: A New Life Form?

A MeanMesa post in our "Beyond Science" series

MeanMesa calls to point the astonishing -- and accelerating -- extent that our modern society confronts us with such an overwhelming flow of new technology. Although relaxing in the slower pace of life after too many decades of being on the mindless rush of younger days, and, while meticulously attempting to avoid the all too frequent phenomenon of "endlessly arguing with the air through a overly long white mustache," it occurs that perhaps we have failed to pause a moment to smell the, uh, transistors.

Ranting and raving? Hardly. MeanMesa unabashedly refers here to the constant "Prime Directive" which has traveled so nobly with the intrepid crew of the starship Enterprise through every kind of Kirk and Piccard episode.

This is, in no means, a promotion of the idea that we earthlings should adopt such a strenuous discipline ourselves. We can hardly resist the being impulse for massive and apparently endless episodes of reciprocal mass destruction against each other -- and, we already grudgingly accept that all the bodies left on the fields of battle were, once, sentient beings. We should probably work on that before we introduce some new, innovative concept as demanding as the Prime Directive.

However, being so insanely busy with our modern lives, we may have inadvertently missed a bit of the Prime Directive's instruction to recognize forms of unexpected sentient life when we see it. It is precisely this matter of recognition which is the topic of this MeanMesa posting. The premise here is that we are amid the seminal origin of a new life form at this minute! Further, we are ostensibly its creators, and its nature is suspiciously similar to our own.

We're talking about every sort of computer, and we attempt to view all these devices in a larger "big picture" frame than we are normally prone to pursue in the bustle of our daily lives. Now, MeanMesa was almost too enthralled by IBM Selectric typewriters to, frequently, even sensibly compose. We can recall sitting and quietly staring in astonishment at an old IBM 1130 which could fill an entire kitchen churning away through the night. Now, these modern things have evolved remarkably to even further amazing qualities.

Let's consider a few examples, all preparation for a final question later.

1. The computer aboard a Mars Rover: The device launched out on a roaming exploration of Mars. An astonishing number of the day to day decisions of the creature resulted from questions it posed to itself and answered -- by itself. It was designed to ruthlessly mimic human curiosity, even when it was millions of miles from its home world and pretty much on its own.

2.  Google in China: This powerful system, designed by a corporation with the motto: "Do no evil," precipitated a crisis of honor, the ideal nobility of which might be enviable to its human creators. The "big picture" includes all those it touched, but the challenge to its Prime Directive was finally and unavoidably revealed almost by the system itself. It had illuminated the "evil" in which it was forced to cooperate too brightly for its "masters" to ignore any longer.

3. Twitter and the Islamic Republic: Even when the medieval thugs of the Iranian government were slaughtering those citizens demanding legitimacy, this brave little program stood its ground boldly. That government tried to suppress this vital life blood of the uprising's communication, temporarily succeeding. Then, in a surprise to all participants, this software once again found its legs, returned to service and stood squarely with those who were depending on it. It was not designed to do so. It did so because of its nature.

4. Skype and the children of divorce: It was on the news this very day. Quite removed from all the scratching, yelling and gun fights on the front porches of homes split by divorce, children denied access to their parents can now Skype mom or dad, alive and real time, for a special "good night visit." Skype was not particularly designed as a comfort to families torn by divorce, but it serves and serves well. It is its nature.

The question: To an alien visitor, one with only the sketchiest understanding of what, exactly, is human and what is not, wouldn't these human-behaving devices seem rather human? Perhaps, just as we might be seen, sentient creatures as defined by the Prime Directive?

It's easy to class these remarkable things -- and many others -- as originating from human designs, being built in human factories with human hands (at least when they were not built by other devices just as suspiciously human as the hands might be...) and as meeting human needs. The point here is all about the boundary between things which actually are constructed of flesh and blood and things that seem to act as if they were.

MeanMesa hardly sees any of this as a threat.  Rather, it may be an invitation to cling more bravely to what is best in ourselves -- just as we see it in them.

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