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Time Essay: Toward an Intelligence Beyond Man’s

6 minute read

Robert Jastrow is director of NASA ‘s Goddard Institute for Space Studies and author of Until the Sun Dies. Computers play a daily role in his work and influence his vision of the future. Here, for TIME, he looks ahead to a new relationship between computers and people:

A5 Dr. Johnson said in a different era about ladies preaching, the surprising thing about computers is not that they think less well than a man, but that they think at all. The early electronic computer did not have much going for it except a prodigious memory and some good math skills, but today the best models can be wired up to learn by experience, follow an argument, ask pertinent questions and write pleasing poetry and music. They can also carry on somewhat distracted conversations so convincingly that their human partners do not know they are talking to a machine.

These are amiable qualities for the computer; it imitates life like an electronic monkey. As computers get more complex, the imitation gets better. Finally, the line between the original and the copy becomes blurred. In another 15 years or so—two more generations of computer evolution, in the jargon of the technologists—we will see the computer as an emergent form of life.

The proposition seems ridiculous because, for one thing, computers lack the drives and emotions of living creatures. But when drives are useful, they can be programmed into the computer’s brain, just as nature programmed them into our ancestors’ brains as a part of the equipment for survival. For example, computers, like people, work better and learn faster when they are motivated. Arthur Samuel made this discovery when he taught two IBM computers how to play checkers. They polished their game by playing each other, but they learned slowly. Finally, Dr. Samuel programmed in the will to win by forcing the computers to try harder —and to think out more moves in advance—when they were losing. Then the computers learned very quickly. One of them beat Samuel and went on to defeat a champion player who had not lost a game to a human opponent in eight years.

Computers match people in some roles, and when fast decisions are needed in a crisis, they often outclass them. The human brain has a wiring defect that prevents it from absorbing several streams of information simultaneously and acting on them quickly. Throw too many things at the brain at one time and it freezes up; it evolved more than 100,000 years ago, when the tempo of life was slower.

We are still in control, but the capabilities of computers are increasing at a fantastic rate, while raw human intelligence is changing slowly, if at all. Computer power is growing exponentially; it has increased tenfold every eight years since 1946. Four generations of computer evolution—vacuum tubes, transistors, simple integrated circuits and today’s miracle chips—followed one another in rapid succession, and the fifth generation, built out of such esoteric devices as bubble memories and Josephson junctions, will be on the market in the 1980s. In the 1990s, when the sixth generation appears, the compactness and reasoning power of an intelligence built out of silicon will begin to match that of the human brain.

By that time, ultra-intelligent machines will be working in partnership with our best minds on all the serious problems of the day, in an unbeatable combination of brute reasoning power and human intuition. What happens after that? Dartmouth President John Kemeny, a pioneer in computer usage, sees the ultimate relation between man and computer as a symbiotic union of two living species, each completely dependent on the other for survival. The computer—a new form of life dedicated to pure thought—will be taken care of by its human partners, who will minister to its bodily needs with electricity and spare BILL PIERCE parts. Man will also provide for computer reproduction, as he does today. In return, the computer will minister to our social and economic needs. Child of man’s brain rather than his loins, it will become his salvation in a world of crushing complexity.

The partnership will not last very long.

Computer intelligence is growing by leaps and bounds, with no natural limit in sight. But human evolution is a nearly finished chapter in the history of life. The human brain has not changed, at least in gross size, in the past 100,000 years, and while the organization of the brain may have improved in that period, the amount of information and wiring that can be crammed into a cranium of fixed size is limited.

That does not mean the evolution of intelligence has ended on the earth. Judging by the record of the past, we can expect that a new species will arise out of man, surpassing his achievements as he has surpassed those of his predecessor, Homo erectus. Only a carbon-chemistry chauvinist would assume that the new species must be man’s flesh-and-blood descendants, with brains housed in fragile shells of bone. The new kind of intelligent life is more likely to be made of silicon.

The history of life suggests that the evolution of the new species will take about a million years. Since the majority of the planets in the universe are not merely millions but billions of years older than the earth, the life they carry—assuming life to be common in the cosmos—must long since have passed through the stage we are about to enter.

A billion years is a long time in evolution; 1 billion years ago, the highest form of life on the earth was a worm. The intelligent life in these other, older solar systems must be as different from us as we are from creatures wriggling in the ooze. Those superintendent beings surely will not be housed in the more or less human shapes portrayed in Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. In a cosmos that has endured for billions of years against man’s mere million, the human form is not likely to be the standard form for intelligent life.

In any event, our curiosity may soon be satisfied. At this moment a shell of TV signals carrying old / Love Lucy programs and Tonight shows is expanding through the cosmos at the speed of light. That bubble of broadcasts has already swept past about 50 stars like the sun. Our neighbors know we are here, and their replies should be on the way. In another 15 or 20 years we will receive their message and meet our future. Let us be neither surprised nor disappointed if its form is that of Artoo Detoo, the bright, personable canister packed with silicon chips. –

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