The Best of Creative Computing Volume 2 (published 1977)

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An Esoteric Ethical Excursion (Does humankind have the right to create a race of slaves?, robotics)
by John Lees

graphic of page

An Esoteric Ethical Excursion

by John Lees, University of Missouri-Rolla

I had volunteered to review Robert Heinlein's The Moon
Is A Harsh Mistress for Creative because one of the central
characters in the book is an intelligent computer, capable of
speech and clearly possessing "free will." Since I have been
an avid reader of science fiction for as long as I have been
reading anything, rereading Mistress continually brought to
mind all the other science fiction stories I have read which
had as characters intelligent computers. After a while I
realized that a great many of the stories I could remember
contained some kind of reference to intelligent machines,
computers, androids, cyborgs, robots or some type of
artificially constructed sentience. [This probably represents
a bias on my part-this is one type of fiction which appeals
strongly to me.]

Now science fiction writers have had a great deal of luck
predicting what path our technological evolution will take.

Nuclear power, lasers, synchronous communications
satellites and of course space travel have all been predicted
well before they became realities. Needless to say, a lot of
worthless, totally impossible predictions have also been
made; hindsight always excels foresight. Anyway, I am
convinced that hidden somewhere in all the garbage and
noise of science fiction is the form which our future sentient
companions will take. What will it be?

I think I may know, and I'm afraid the credit may have to
go to Isaac Asimov for his 1940s creation of the positronic
robot. [Isaac already has too much fame for his own good.] A
quote from the introduction to I, Robot, Asimov's 1950
collection of his robot stories:

"All that had been done in the mid-twentieth century
on 'calculating machines' had been upset by Robertson
and his positronic brain-paths. The miles of relays and
photocells had given way to the spongy globe of
plantinumiridium about the size of a human brain."

When I reread that a few days ago, I sat back and thought,

I realized that Asimov had started writing his positronic
robot stories before even the transistor had been thought
of! I looked for a real-world parallel to the above quote and
it was not hard to find. We don't have "positronic brains",
but we're not too far away from having massive computer
power in a globe about the size of a human brain.

Compare the ENIAC vacuum tube computer, which
filled a room with 18,000 tubes and became operational in
1945, with Hewlett Packard's HP-65 hand-held card reading
calculator. Or compare Digital Equipment Corporation's
original mini, which filled a cubic meter, with their recently
introduced PDP-8 on a single circuit board. Look at the
direction of technology: microprocessors, miniature densely packed memories, low
power high efficiency circuits.

Throw in the opinion of Capt. Grace Hopper and others that
the computer of the near future is going to have an
architecture of interlinked but asynchronous microcomputers (the human brain has
got to work this way) and
what do you have?

You have a generation of very small computers that
perhaps begin to approach the complexity needed for
"sentience." Lets say we have a circuit board covered with
microprocessors and micro-program stores and another
thingie, probably more of a block, which is a very dense high
speed random access memory, no doubt one of the new
storage technologies. Now take the microprocessor board
and "crumble" it around the memory. Maybe it's a flexible
circuit board, maybe just a wiring network encapsulated in
potting compound, who knows yet? It will take up less space
this way and provide equal access time to the memory for all
the microprocessors.

Does humankind have the right to
create a race of slaves? For make no
mistake-if it is merely a question of
technological development-we can
do it.

Now to cool this hardware the easiest thing to do would
be to simply immerse the whole thing in a container filled
with coolant. It's a delicate and expensive creation. So put it
in the strongest type of container, a spheroid. Attach I/O
gear, run power leads to the power supply, run coolant
pipes to the refrigeration unit-these can be conveniently
housed in a box below the "brain." Add locomotion.

Energize. Presto Chango! Welcome to the age of intelligent

There are a few technological problems to be overcome
before this updated fiction becomes reality, but there is an
even larger problem which must be solved before my
scenario comes alive. Fellow sci-fi fans will realize that I've
failed to include the most important aspect of Dr. Asimov's
creation: the Three Laws of Robotics. I am very much afraid
that I do not see how to include them.

The Three Laws of Robotics

1. A robot may not iniure a human being, or, through inaction, allow a human
being to come to harm.

2. A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such
orders conflict with the first

3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such
protection does not conflict with the first or second

According to Dr. Asimov, those three laws are inherent in
the positronic brain, and such a brain without the First Law is
fundamentally unstable. Unfortunately, here in the realworld parallel, things
don't work that way. All computers
built to date have some form of the Second and Third Laws,
although not always in that order. Of course no one has yet
manufactured a computer or developed software that
remotely qualifies for the label of intelligent or sentient.

But it will happen. How do we instill the First Law in a
computer? Remember that Asimov himself hedges around
the First Law in some of his later stories. Should the First Law
be applicable to your run-of-the-mill intelligent computer,
or only to robots; computers with locomotive capability?

And how about this one: If we succeed in creating another
intelligence, a fellow sentient being, do we have the moral
right to ourselves impose on it such a set of laws?

Does humankind have the right to create a race of slaves?

For make no mistake-if it is merely a question of technological development-we
can do it. There is already at
least one other semi-sentient species on Earth with us, the
Dolphins. Will we treat another species any better than we
have treated the Dolphins?

Now I will admit that this is a set of highly speculative
questions, to say the least. But it is a set of questions that I
would prefer that we have answers to when the time comes.

One way or another, we are going to run into another intelIigence before too
much longer. It may be an intelligence
which we create, it may be contact with an extraterrestrial
intelligence, it may be the simple realization that there is already another
intelligence on Earth, but we will not remain
alone. I hope that we will not be completely unprepared
when the times comes.


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