Friday, 26 July 2013

Issues In The Star Beast II

Poul Anderson's "The Star Beast," published in 1950, addresses an issue that recurs in several of Anderson's later novels, Harvest Of Stars, Genesis, The Boat Of A Million Years and Starfarers: might technology make humanity obsolete?

"There are no real human scientists anymore. How can there be, when the electronic brains and the great machines which are their bodies can do it all so much quicker and better - can do things we would never even have dreamed of, things of which man's highest geniuses have only the faintest glimmer of an understanding? That has paralyzed us..."

(Poul Anderson, "The Star Beast" IN Anderson, Alight In The Void, New York, 1993, pp. 61-102 AT p. 64)

As often with Anderson, I want to quote just one or two sentences but find that an entire paragraph is full of condensed meaning. This passage does not make clear whether these "electronic brains" are elaborate unconscious computers or conscious intelligent artifacts but, in any case, although I am a philosopher, not a scientist, I would be fascinated, not "paralyzed," by the situation described. I can think of life-long projects for at least three teams of human scientists/philosophers:

group I to continue building a model of the universe with the human intellect aided by telescopes, space probes and unconscious computers that merely process data as they do now;
group 2 to find ways to enhance human understanding in order to increase that "faintest glimmer of understanding" of what the electronic brains are doing - I am sure that, with advanced nutrition, education and technology, the entire planetary population will be able to surpass what had been the "genius" levels (Aristotle, Shakespeare, Einstein, Beethoven) of previous generations;
group 3 to compare the humanly conceived model with the electronic brains' theories, to discuss the differences, attempt a synthesis, redirect human efforts in directions suggested by the machines etc.

There really would be no end to it.

The passage quoted goes on to mention a second reason for "paralysis" which I will discuss in a further post.

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