A new contributor to ENV, Erik Larson, recently gave us a pair of fascinating posts (here and here) debunking the delusion, promulgated by Stephen Hawking among others, that the evolutionary future will include "smart machines" capable of overtaking humans and even of eliminating us.
Dr. Larson observes that, hype aside, there’s a limit to how smart machines really can become: "’Model saturation,’ as it’s called, is the eventual flattening of a machine learning curve into an asymptote or a straight line, where there’s no further learning, no matter how much more data you provide."
It’s interesting to think about how long the delusion about machines has been a subject of contemplation. Last night my wife and I went to see The Tales of Hoffmann at the Seattle Opera. It was beautiful, as you’d expect, but also, I realized since this was my first exposure to Jacques Offenbach (above), surprisingly relevant to our concerns here.
The opera was first performed in 1881, though Offenbach sadly didn’t live to see it. The plot, such as it is, is based on three stories by E.T.A. Hoffmann (1776-1822), a popular German author of fantastic fiction at the time. In each, the comic-tragic hero, the poet and drunkard "Hoffmann," falls in love with a beautiful woman only to lose her, one way or another. (Where the lady love interest dies in the end, by illness, suicide, murder, is the plot line of 95 percent of all operas.)
In the first story, the woman, Olympia, is actually a machine, a robot or automaton created by a pair of scientific inventors! The details, as usual with opera, are convoluted and seemingly slap-dash. The basic point, though, is that Hoffmann is bewitched by "Olympia," thinking she’s a real woman — a notion maintained only by a profiteering scientist, one of her two inventors, who sells him a pair of magic illusion-inducing spectacles.
In the climax, Hoffmann dances with Olympia, falls, and the magic glasses are shattered. Other stuff happens, including Olympia getting decapitated. Hoffmann is humiliated and devastated to realize how he was fooled. Everyone laughs at him, since they never believed in the “smart machine.”
The story on which the tale of "Olympia" is based was written in 1816. Yet after nearly two centuries, plenty of time to think things over, many of us are still wearing those magic glasses.
Of course, automatons go way, way back in the history of technology, giving you incidentally a spooky notion of the idea of man under materialism.