June 13, 1863 (a Saturday)

On this date, “Darwin Among the Machines” appeared as the heading of an article published in The Press newspaper in Christchurch, New Zealand. Written by Samuel Butler but signed Cellarius, the article raised the possibility that machines were a kind of “mechanical life” undergoing constant evolution, and that eventually machines might supplant humans as the dominant species:

We refer to the question: What sort of creature man’s next successor in the supremacy of the earth is likely to be. We have often heard this debated; but it appears to us that we are ourselves creating our own successors; we are daily adding to the beauty and delicacy of their physical organisation; we are daily giving them greater power and supplying by all sorts of ingenious contrivances that self-regulating, self-acting power which will be to them what intellect has been to the human race. In the course of ages we shall find ourselves the inferior race.

(…)

Day by day, however, the machines are gaining ground upon us; day by day we are becoming more subservient to them; more men are daily bound down as slaves to tend them, more men are daily devoting the energies of their whole lives to the development of mechanical life. The upshot is simply a question of time, but that the time will come when the machines will hold the real supremacy over the world and its inhabitants is what no person of a truly philosophic mind can for a moment question.

The article ended by urging that “war to the death should be instantly proclaimed against them. Every machine of every sort should be destroyed by the well-wisher of his species. Let there be no exceptions made, no quarter shown; let us at once go back to the primeval condition of the race.” This article, along with later writings by Butler on “machine evolution”, was arguably satirical in intent, although he may have been using these fanciful writings to explore some real philosophical issues like the question of whether biological life and evolution can be explained in purely mechanical terms.

An artificial intelligence with attitude.

Butler developed this and subsequent articles into The Book of the Machines, which consisted of three chapters in his novel entitled Erewhon, published anonymously in 1872. The Erewhonian society envisioned by Butler was one that had long ago undergone a revolution in which most mechanical inventions had been destroyed, and the narrator of the story finds a book detailing the reasons for this revolution, which he translates for the reader.

Butler was the first to write about the possibility that machines might develop consciousness by a kind of Darwinian selection. Although many dismissed this as a joke, Butler wrote in the preface to the second edition of Erewhon that he had no intention of satirizing Darwin’s evolutionary theory:

I regret that reviewers have in some cases been inclined to treat the chapters on Machines as an attempt to reduce Mr. Darwin’s theory to an absurdity. Nothing could be further from my intention, and few things would be more distasteful to me than any attempt to laugh at Mr. Darwin; but I must own that I have myself to thank for the misconception, for I felt sure that my intention would be missed, but preferred not to weaken the chapters by explanation, and knew very well that Mr. Darwin’s theory would take no harm. The only question in my mind was how far I could afford to be misrepresented as laughing at that for which I have the most profound admiration.

As Alan Turing (1951) observed, “once the machine thinking method has started, it would not take long to outstrip our feeble powers. … At some stage therefore we should have to expect the machines to take control, in the way that is mentioned in Samuel Butler’s ‘Erewhon’”. Turing shared Butler’s view that the consequences of such greater-than-human intelligence will be profound, and conceivably dire for humanity as we know it.

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