Soul of the Machine


Could computers one day be conscious, even have a soul? It’s an interesting, introspective theme with the end of the year quickly approaching. Now that we have all looked back and a little bit into what 2013 might bring, it’s nothing more than appropriate to look somewhat further ahead.

For one thing, 3D-printing has a phenomenal potential for business transformation, although it may not already move into mainstream next year. With exciting solutions becoming available to more and more people, a tipping point may soon be reached. What if we can easily construct custom-designed objects – layer by layer – using all sorts of different materials? Actually, these objects are real (sometimes even all too real), they share the same physical attributes as their hand-made or machine-made equivalents and in some cases they may even be more robust or durable. Sooner or later, we will therefor not question the credibility of these objects and fully accept them as they are. We will not even give it a second thought.

Could the same happen with computers?

Some of the latest buzz in the IT industry seems to suggest that pretty soon, we will have cognitive computers that can see, hear, smell and touch. Combined with access to the Internet of Things and powerful pattern recognition capabilities, these smart machines might be able to act just like humans. Winning a game of jeopardy would be nothing more than child’s play compared to that. Google recently hired Ray Kurzweil, who has been evangelizing the idea of a technological singularity: an inflection point in time at which the divide between men and machines no longer exists and the resulting intelligence amplifies itself into dimensions we cannot even imagine right now.

In a future like that, we could consider computers as first class citizens and we would no longer be able – or interested – to see the difference. Even emotions, often considered to be the final frontier of men, would be not so special after all as they would be rationalized into the cognitive patterns that they actually are.

Is it something to look forward to, this age of spiritual machines? You tell us. Is it the utter consequence of mankind to be able to reinvent and then redefine itself through higher and higher plateaus, ultimately reaching an IT-enabled Digital Nirvana? Or are we limited creatures, doomed not to understand our brains with our own brains and stuck with simple languages (whether digital or analog) to make some tiny bit of sense of our existence and our very soul?

Personally, I sincerely hope for the latter. I love technology for augmenting my life but it does not necessarily have to take its place all too close to me.

It’s only human.

There is a good reason why people prefer animated movies like Disney’s Brave – with its obvious cartoon style – over near-real films like Beowulf. The phenomenon is well-known as the uncanny valley: when the appearance of a robot (or an animated character) is made more human, a human observer’s emotional response to the character will become increasingly positive and empathic, until a point is reached (where the similarity is almost 100%, but not complete) beyond which the response quickly becomes that of strong revulsion.

I believe the same uncanny valley will appear when computers show more and more human characteristics: we will be amused and excited first but sooner or later the machine’s behavior comes so close to ours (but never being quite there) that it will annoy, irritate or even scare us.

Technology should manifest itself as technology, pretending nothing more than that. Honestly: it’s metal, silicon, 0’s and 1’s. People will embrace the augmented reality of Google Glass – which simply puts an additional, obviously artificial, cartoon-style layer on top of what they perceive – more than an uncanny attempt to create a full 3D world around them (have you been in Second Life lately? Say hallo to the other two avatars, thanks).

Computers may be hyper-connected and have cognitive super powers, they lack something that makes them uncanny when they become too smart: soul.

The soul cannot be described, not even in a poem, let alone with a programming language.

I’ll change my mind when the first computer pops up that truly fancies discussing existentialism with me in a night café in Paris while drinking good red wine (I’ll call it the Tolido Test). In the meantime, enjoy the forthcoming days with your family or dearest friends. Have a good time, laugh and relax with them. They deserve your full attention, so it’s okay to get disconnected.

I am sure your laptops and smartphones won’t mind. For now.


Happy holidays!

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