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2004/12/17 autonomic computing

IBM's view of the future, which encompasses and goes beyond the "self-healing" systems being talked about today.

From their FAQ :

Isn't autonomic computing the same as creating intelligent machines? This is partly a matter of definition. If " intelligent machine" means one that embodies human cognitive powers, the answer is no. But if that term is taken to mean systems that can adapt, learn and take over certain functions previously performed by humans then autonomic computing does involve the idea of embedding this kind of intelligence in computing systems.

I'd say it's more a matter of prejudice than a matter of definition.

Just what "human cognitive powers" aren't present in "systems that can adapt, learn and take over certain functions previously performed by humans"? Are we simply talking about the degree of intelligence? If so, fine: our machines are still a long way from even approaching human intelligence. But whenever someone says something silly like "we can never model the human brain because it's too complicated and we don't understand how it works", I am immediately reminded that almost anything could have been phrased in such terms at some point in our history. Just because we don't understand something today doesn't mean that we should give up and say that we never will. And it is certainly true that present day limitations of computer hardware and software can't be the basis for predictions about what will be possible in the future.

But just the same, there are some who stubbornly insist that there is something special about human minds. Some of it is religiously based: the mind is seen as "soul", and of course in their view a machine can't have a soul, therefore it can't be equivalent to mind. That is a problem that can't be addressed rationally, so there's no point in trying: if that's your belief, nothing I or anyone else can say will change it. But even more reality grounded people insist that consciousness is somehow something that is beyond the capability of machines.

Curiously, if pressed hard enough, such people will usually admit that (if you disregard religious beliefs) mind can be nothing but a machine. A human brain is nothing more than its physical composition: various cells, and electrical and chemical communication between them. Unless you have some idea that humans have either been created rather than evolved, or that some mystical power is passed into us at some moment in our growth from an egg and sperm, how could you possibly argue otherwise? Given that a human mind is just a physical (chemical, electrical) machine, obviously another machine built to the same paradigm would be "conscious".

For reasons I can't understand, that idea upsets people. I can understand a religious person being bothered by it, but really they should just be rejecting it outright - it shouldn't upset them. It's the non-religious people who cannot accept that whose thought I don't understand. They seem unable to accept that consciousness is simply awareness of input - whether the input comes from external sources or from other parts of the mind. Maybe part of their problem is not understanding that our minds are not one self- governed unit working toward a common goal. What we actually are is a bunch of interconnected machines, and what we call consciousness is simply one of those parts. Such people often argue that it is the mystical consciousness that will defeat any attempt to build machines equivalent to human minds. They are wrong.

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© Tony Lawrence

"For reasons I can't understand, that idea upsets people."

When you consider that the basis for all religious belief is the notion of a supernatural power controlling our destination, the idea that the human brain is somehow different than, say, a gorilla's brain or an incredibly complicate computer becomes very appealing to religious types -- keeping in mind that these are the same people who insist evolution is a lot of hoakum.

Then the next step is the concept of a "soul" -- which term I've always taken to identify the sort of music performed by guys like James Brown and Al Green. <Grin> Before you know it, the religious wonks, unable to come up with a satisfactory explanation for human thought and behavior, decide that the human brain -- that strange looking mass of protoplasm, synapses, chemicals, blood, etc. -- is incomprehensible.

To me, incomprehensible is a word, not a state of being, nor is it a draft standard for the design of the human mind. We *don't know* right now what it is that makes the human mind different from that of a monkey or a whale, aside from the obvious external manifestations of intelligence. However, I believe that in time, we will understand precisely what it is that makes our brain work as it does.

Until then, my thoughts are that if one cannot understand the scope of the human mind, don't try to hide that fact behind a bunch of religious BS. Just say, "I don't know," which is the same answer I use when someone asks me why Windows randomly crashes.

I'll leave it with this: a number of years ago in a TV series about the human brain, the question was posed, "What does it mean to be human?"

How about, "The ability to ask such a question."


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