Tuesday, September 15, 2009
Editor’s Note: Spoke friend and multimedia virtuoso (think modern Renaissance man, truly) Steve Mockensturm sidesteps the usual “shop talk” in lieu of existentialist thoughts on the machines that use us, er… we use. These ideas resonate and compel us to ask deeper questions about the often perverse marriage between our real and virtual worlds. The answers are hard to come by, let alone (at times) uncomfortable to consider.
“When you come to a fork in the road... take it!” — Yogi Berra
At a most fundamental level, our computers are simple and not smart at all. They can only do one, solid thing; make a determination as to whether something is true or false. That’s all a computer has ever been able to do. It’s a binary, boolean world where everything is, at its core, a decision between a one and a zero, on or off, thing or not-thing.
Furthermore, this sophisticated Difference Engine can only make these logical decisions one-at-a-time. Though the speed of decisions is impressive and things may appear to happen at the same time, the basic event stream of any given protocol cannot proceed until a decision — the only decision — is made: Does this request evaluate this way or that way?
The beat, the drummer, the traffic cop that keeps all these decisions organized is a simple clock running at a ridiculous speed. Choices are made between the ticks. For example, this piece is being written on a device that can make roughly 5.6 billion logical decisions per second. That’s how it works.
We can think of life this way sometimes. Though we are not Vulcans and we often hear, “It’s not a black and white world,” it sort of is. You are not here, you are there. Light is not dark, hot is not cold, good is not evil and Marvel is not DC. Our entire planet is quite literally bipolar and as technology marches apace, it is no small coincidence the human condition seems more and more polarized. We don’t appear to get along with each other as we used to. Our differences dictate behavior more than our similarities. Us and them. Binary logic.
Luddites and other critics of technology might argue the economics of dominion that technology facilitates, but the bigger fear may as well be: Are humans losing the capacity to determine shades of gray? Nuance seems dead as we begin to emulate — though at a comparatively sloth-like pace - the devices we cannot seem to live without. You must either be for something or against something, but you cannot be both.
Apparently — even with crazy-fast computing — concepts of kindness, fear, belief, wisdom and love are impossible to discern with simple true or false decisions. But this may not always be so. Though the brain is mysterious and complex, it is — logic would dictate — of limited capacity. There is only so much stuff up there making decisions, and — just like the difference engine — we can really only think of one thing at-a-time.
Enter the world of quantum computing, true asynchronous processing and circuits that communicate with light rather than crude, charged electrons running through a piece of silicon. Someday — sooner than later — logical decisions will be evaluated persistently and at the speed of thought.
It appears the gap is closing from both sides. As computing power increases and creeps toward analogous thought through quantum physics and light speed transactions, human power seems ever nudged toward simple binary transactions. Science Fiction has posited more than once that existence is merely an extremely advanced digital experience.
Maybe that’s why we have a tendency to anthropomorphize everything. We are shocked when hearing that robots have learned to lie. Delighted when a houseplant posts a comment to a blog saying it needs water. We tend to make comments like, “My computer thinks...” when, in fact, all these things are just devices doing what they were programmed to do.
Perhaps binary logic is an ancient part of human nature just now being thrown into the light and we are more like the difference machines — and they like us — than we’d care to admit. Doing what we’re programmed to do. We might do well to re-examine choice and free will and what makes something right or wrong. Life is nothing, if not perpetual observation and processing of data and no decision we can ever make is more fundamental than a yes or a no.
© 2009 Stephen Mockensturm, some rights reserved.