Written by David Tebbutt, MicroScope 12/83 item 02 - scanned

A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH (column)

Every day, committees up and down the country meet to decide who shall live and who shall die.

These are doctors, nurses, social workers and other involved parties who decide who will be the recipients of kidney dialysis machines. No doubt similar meetings take place regarding heart bypass operations and bone marrow transplants. Until I saw a programme on the box last week, I'd never really thought that some people are deliberately chosen to be victims because their lives are not worth saving so much as others.

At the moment, the criteria relate to family circumstances, the ability to cope with having a dialysis machine at home, and the severity of the illness. I've no doubt that there are many more aspects to such decisions, but this doesn't alter the fact that such decisions are made and that, as a result some people are chosen to live while others are chosen to die. I'm sure that committee members can live with their decisions on the grounds that, without treatment, all patients will certainly die.

Around the time I saw this programme, I was reading a book about the fifth generation of computers which will bring the benefits of expert systems and vast relational databases to an unsuspecting world. The expert systems will be very good at emulating human performance in fairly specific application domains. If more than one human expert provides the rules, then it's likely that such an expert system will out perform the individuals who provide its knowledge in the first place.

Doctors will be able to hand over patient screening to the computer, leaving the doctor with the more human aspects of treatment. Chemical companies already use expert systems to analyse existing substances as a first stage towards their synthesis.

One of the major opportunities which will result from this activity is the export of knowledge, predigested in the form of expert systems. As the fifth generation project gathers momentum, more and more of these expert systems will be created, until eventually they will be able to create new expert systems themselves.

We shall also see computers become competent at harvesting information from all sorts of sources, from hand-written documents to human speech. No doubt the computer will follow some sort of 'expert' rules for sifting this information as it is gathered ready for storage somewhere for later recall when needed. I'm sure that much of the information will never be referred to again but, like the miles of civil service archives, it will be stored 'just in case'. No doubt the computer will form relationships between existing items and new pieces of data as they are fed in. All of this data will be available to human and computer explorers alike.

Both expert systems and sophisticated data storage/retrieval systems will be extremely useful aids for their human masters. And the humans will be in charge, make no mistake. The chance of a fifth generation system going berserk and taking over the world is remote indeed. But I suspect that the fifth generation wallahs are keeping quiet about one of their intentions, and that concerns genuine creativity: the mental processes which lead to natty ideas for preventions and cures for sickness, for new goods and services, for better ways of organising our lives and the world in general. But no, according to the material I've read, creativity does not appear to be a part of the fifth generation project.

Perhaps there is a secret plot afoot to capture the essence of human creativity and embody it in the computer? I can imagine experts willingly giving up the details of their jobs to help build an expert system, if it gives them the same income and more time on the golf course.

I get the feeling, though, that creative people would be very reluctant to expose their thought processes to external analysis. There are all sorts of theories about creativity which could be used to develop such a system but, like the other expert systems, they would be much better if real live humans provided the relevant input and insights. Perhaps, as computers take over the decision making processes such as who gets kidney dialysis machines, heart bypasses and the like, a new set of priorities will emerge. For sick creative people it could become a case of 'your knowledge or your life'.