“Yes, now there is a God” – Post a Day #185

Thou shalt not make a machine in the likeness of a human mind. – First Commandment in the Orange Catholic Bible (Dune)

Fascinating post a day that I’m going to use to discuss the fear of computers, more specifically artificial intelligence and the inherent dangers as expressed in science fiction.

The line in the title comes from a short story entitled Answer written by Frederic Brown in 1954. The protagonist switches on a computer and declares that he will ask his machine the only question that no machine had thus far been able to answer. The question is, of course, “is there a God?” and the machine replies with the line above. This is neither the most memorable nor the first instance of the danger of “thinking machines” in science fiction but it is the most chilling.

The more I think about it, the more I am convinced that the concerns about artificial intelligence is simply a modern version of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. The reader may laugh, but I feel it is at the heart of the idea behind Terminator. Not that Frankenstein was completely original, obviously Shelley’s title “A Modern Prometheus” demonstrated her own influences. What is at the core of Terminator, like Frankenstein, is technology gone bad. We create something that we cannot control and in the end goes out of control and turns on its creator. This is more prevalent in Terminator 2: Judgement Day as we obtain more information about the nature of Skynet and how it became self-aware way beyond the expectations of its creator. In Terminator 3, though not a great film, it evolves still further playing on fears about the power of the internet. It is revealed that Skynet was not a computer but the sum total of linked computers all over the world… Skynet was the software.

Dune explores a similar problem in its back story. The universe that the books inhabit is one set 8000 years into our future following human liberation after thousands of years of slavery to thinking machines. Explored in The Legends of Dune trilogy written by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson, it shows the beginnings of The Butlerian Jihad (often alluded to in the original novel but rarely detailed) and the fight to establish the society that we see in the original books. But there is a three way fight between humanity, the thinking machines controlled by Omnius (a network of supercomputers like Terminator’s Skynet) and the Cymeks (cyborgs).

Though the film had little resemblance to the short story on which it was based, the Will Smith starred film I, Robot had a similar such premise: a supercomputer takes over the world using robots built by humans. Though this case was slightly different in that the intelligent mind behind that takeover claimed to be doing it for the good of humanity.

A slightly different take again came in the form of The Matrix, humans plugged into a supercomputer that has constructed an elaborate fantasy world. Is this perhaps a warning of the dangers of MMORPG or maybe Sims Online? ;). If I recall correctly, the Matrix itself claimed to be doing it for humanity’s own good too.

What is interesting is the basic premise in each case that humans created the thinking machines as a slave race that for one reason or another turns on it creator. Computers are a relatively recent invention and for all the wonderful things we can do with them, there is arguably no limit to either the possibilities, the dangers or the potential for good ways to explore those in fiction.

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