Wednesday, April 4, 2007

The Unmodelable Miracle

This book did little to refute the argument I already presented regarding the plausibility of a reproduction of the brain (see "Who We Pretend To Be.") While that post was written in response to a book that did have artificial intelligence with the capacity to feel and joke--all those features unique to humans--my response was based on how realistic I thought the idea actually was and this book followed the same realism. In the end, we are not given the impression that a human brain could be reproduced (the story seems to emphasize that most of the statements Helen makes are programmed and not based on true human intelligence), especially when "she" fails the Turing test. Not only this, but the end also reveals that the experience was more to help Powers learn to tell (teach) rather than have the machine learn.

There are many lines that I find intriguing, lines that show this recognition of the complexities of the human brain, which illustrate some of the points I tried to make. He comments on the expression that coincides with thought. When C. is described as thinking, Powers asks "Would a thinking machine, too, turn its simulated eyes away?" (63) This line struck me immediately and lingered afterwards, refining my own argument by providing detail to represent it. There are so many nuances, so many different actions, that the human brain allows, even beyond just those thoughts we might have. We might scrunch are brow, raise an eyebrow, smile, shake our head, do many different expressions that coincide with our reactions. Could a machine do that? Even more interesting, if a machine could, would it understand why? Even humans don't respond to questions or even jokes the same way. One might decide to laugh at a joke, while another might cringe. It is hard to actually anticipate how a person might react; how could this be imitated. Even if a robot did turn its "simulated eyes away," would it do it every time and, if it did, wouldn't it lack the spontaneity and unpredictability of a human's reaction?

The book even considers the human brain in mechanical terms to show how complicated it really is. This is evident in Powers description of how Diane reacts to a joking statement he makes: "She gave me a look, bafflement routed slowly by inference. That she could unpack, decode, index, retrieve, and interpret by reference at all was an unmodelable miracle. More miraculous still, I could watch her grin of understanding unfold in less than hundredth-millimeter increments, in split seconds." (182) Notice how he uses his knowledge of computers to describe the process of interpretation. She took sarcasm and in a short time was able to appreciate it, responding with an understanding grin (another reference to the facial expressions humans associate with thought). The use of the term "miracle," modified by the word "unmodelable" suggests two things: one, a human brain cannot be reproduced and two, the brain is extraordinary and divinely created (the book doesn't seem to imply a creator such as God, but miracle is most commonly associated with the divine).

Finally, the last quote I will include deals with another uniquely human quality: the well intended mistakes and errors. The book makes this distinction clear: "Helen, choosing the right answer for the wrong reasons, condemned herself to another lifetime of machinehood. Harold's girl, in picking wrongly for the right reasons, leaped uniquely human." (222) Powers seems to suggest that the ability to make a mistake even when are intentions are right is unique to humanity. While a person can answer a question wrong but have the right intentions in mind, a robot can only be right for the wrong reasons or (rarely, as the book would imply) right for the right reasons. Humans, however, can have the correct motivations but still err in their action. It is a part of humanity.

Overall, I agreed with the ideas in this book and appreciated the realistic content (though, I was bored by all the information about C.) However, I have nothing else to say that this book didn't already corroborate, though I could cite many examples of parts that I found funny. In fact, since this part connects to the other comments that the writer makes about the human brain, I will conclude by citing the part of humanity that makes me laugh, since it is so true: (After trying to talk to Helen through the microphone) "It hit me well after it should have. The mind is still an evolutionary infant. Most trouble with the obvious. I reached down and turned the mike back on. Then I read the words again." (290)

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