Written by David Tebbutt, MicroScope 06/83 item 01 - scanned

MERE HUMAN PLAYTHINGS (column)

The world is going to be taken over by computers. Human beings are simply going to become tools of these machines as they play their vast power games. And whose fault will it be? Ours for letting it happen.

I am reminded of those days during the war when scientists were working flat out to find ways of making a workable atomic bomb before Hitler could. Individual participants in the project forgot or couldn't forsee the terrible consequences of such a weapon. No effort or resource was spared to find ways of filtering adequate quantities of the uranium isotope from highly corrosive uranium hexafluoride gas. Scientists worked night and day to find the optimum way of throwing two non-critical lumps of the stuff together so that the combined mass would be critical. Then, in the New Mexico desert, the first atomic bomb (Fat Man) was detonated. Three weeks later, the centre of Hiroshima lay in ruins and many scientists who had enjoyed the earlier challenges of the atomic programme found themselves feeling very guilty. I remember as a child being thrilled by films of atom bomb tests. The public was pretty well unaware of the dangers of exploding atomic weapons in the atmosphere. And so it is today. We are on the verge of creating a brand new threat to humanity and hardly anyone, including those most closely involved, is aware it's happening.

We are heading towards a computer takeover of the world. Most of us rather arrogantly feel we're just too clever and that computers will never be able to do the things even a single human brain can do. I rather suspect that people thought similar thoughts when steam engines were first invented. They were rather cumbersome affairs which could never catch on because they were too large, uncontrollable and downright dangerous. Of course the designs improved, the size was reduced and they became quite reliable and popular. Imagine the reaction of the public when they saw the Wright brothers' plane. How could they possibly envisage the jet travel which is so commonplace today. In exactly the same way, we are nigh on incapable of seeing where this computer industry will lead us. We can make a few intelligent guesses though.

First of all, the human brain transmits information at 120 metres per second which is pretty slow compared with the internal speed of a computer. The human mind comprises a whole bunch of parallel processors and it has replicated memory all over the place. There's no reason why computers shouldn't work this way too. Computers will be faster and more reliable when it comes to recalling information and they have the benefit of being able to talk to other computers all over the world via the telephone system. Already they can make and answer calls themselves. In effect the international telephone system and all the computers attached to it could form a single vast distributed computer.

We already trust computers to help with our decision making. Linear programming for example would be a very tedious process without computers. With them it's a doddle and we're very inclined to act on the information calculated by the machine. Political decisions are made with the help of computer models. In fact in every walk of life, computers are necessarily becoming involved simply because life is becoming too complex for human brains to cope in a timely fashion. Once we make software building blocks which are known to work, we can give these to the computer and it can decide appropriate ways to blend them together to solve different application problems. Including, perhaps, the application of writing better computer programs and building blocks. Once they're off on this track, there will be no stopping them. Give them the human range of senses plus a few extras (infrared vision and ultrasonic hearing for example) and you have the making of a machine which can easily outstrip a human being.

Wars could be fought electronically as each country's super computers thrashed out their differences. The computers would spit out recommendations (orders really) to its human handmaidens. We would have to trust the machines, we'd have no choice. If you were told that World War 3 would start unless a certain person was assassinated or a certain building was blown up what would you do? Would you have any choice? Such is the future for the human race. I offer no solutions. It will probably happen. We will be replaced as the dominant species on this planet. We are creating our own replacements and, like the atom-splitting scientists, we have only the remotest grasp of the irreversible changes we are making to the world.