Artificial intelligence (AI to you and me), as we have come to know it, started out life in 1821…
John Herschel (yes the son of the William Herschel, who discovered the planet, Uranus) brought with him some astronomical calculations of the (human) computers to his friend, Charles Babbage. They commenced the tedious process of verification. After a time many discrepancies occurred, and at one point these discordances were so numerous that Charles exclaimed, “I wish to God these calculations had been executed by steam,” to which Herschel replied, “It is quite possible.”
But computers, or to be more correct, automatons had been predicted by Jonathan Swift in Gulliver’s Travels, where an inventor has constructed a gigantic machine designed to allow the most ignorant person to write works of ‘philosophy, poetry politics law mathematics and theology’. Swift was undoubtedly satirising the then more far fetched pretensions of science and technology of his time.
So the natural question is did Babbage think back to Swift when he made his utterance? If so, the real hero of this vignette is Herschel who had a belief it could be done.
Both science and science fiction have come a long way in describing computers, robots and artificial intelligences since then. It would certainly be interesting to know when science influenced science fiction and vice versa.
But science fiction uses artificial intelligences for several purposes:
- part of the prediction of the future, including how they will impact us mortals
- as an entity that is close to being human, but for various reasons could not be put into human form
- as a mechanism to show us something on the possible development of our society, much like H G Wells used time travel to depict the interaction between the Eloi type of people and the Morlocks
- as is the case with my C.A.T. series, teaching us about human traits e.g. trust
- as a device to help save words and paper when the author wants something particular done (really a tool for a lazy science fiction writer – but hey, if it adds to the readers enjoyment, so what?)
Sometimes it is difficult to distinguish between the above reasons of why an artificial intelligence is used in a particular story, but the issue that is bugging me is, why didn’t science fiction predict the computer revolution we’ve been seeing in recent decades? Why did it drop the ball so to speak?
And it’s not just science fiction writers, but also science people.
My guess is that we missed out on the impact of economics… the 1980s saw computers becoming affordable in the home. There was one computer that used your standard TV screen. From there it was easy to build up a network… the internet and so on… now we have a computationally wired behemoth.
So the next question is what else are we missing out because we scientists and science fiction writers have not understood the economics impact on our cultures?