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Technology and It's Effect on Society

Technology and It's Effect on Society

by James Graves

HIST 515 Western Intellectual Tradition

Spring 1990, Prof. Vernard Foley


This paper is copyright (c) 1990 by James C. Graves, Jr.

Technology is constantly changing, and it is changing us as well. In the past, some of these changes have been difficult to cope with. In the future, these changes are going to be happening faster, with less time to prepare. Unless we are well informed of the consequences, we will make the wrong choices, and our technology will destroy us.

Since man started using tools, technology has in turn shaped human society. Even in the beginning these changes were drastic. Stone tools opened up new sources of food, enabling primitive man to expand in population and territory. These tools also changed the social structure of primitive man, putting more emphasis on males to capture large game. Ever since, advancing technology has changed our society, transforming how we conduct our daily lives.

The invention of plows and the learning of cultivation caused some humans to stop wandering and settle down in one area. Men started building permanent shelters, and clearing forests. This is also when man's nutrition started going down, because of less variety in food consumed. The first governments appeared in conjunction with this stage, at first just to secure natural resources like water. Up until that point, a person or group would rule at most a few hundred people, but with governments thousands (later millions and billions) would be united under one rule.

Soon (in galactic terms at least) came the industrial age, with all the good and bad things it created. Most notably among these was the diminishing portion of the economy devoted to agriculture. Now people were spending their days (and nights) in factories instead of in the fields. Living conditions in most places went up, and the standard of living rose considerably. At least the standards that can be measured went up, like things that can be bought. It is difficult to say if other factors like happiness went up as well.

Currently, we are in the middle of what's know as the information age, where information (designs, art, science discoveries) takes on as much importance as physical objects. An increasing part of the economy is now devoted to the handling of information: creating, distributing, editing, and deleting. People are now stealing ideas for the same reasons as people still steal objects.

The most important thing to an information age economy is the ability to transmit information quickly and cheaply. Telephones, copiers, overnight delivery services, and fax machines are the basis for our information based economy. The above list doesn't include one means of communication that is more important, because it is not an extension of old technology.

When computers were first connected in large networks during the late 1970s, an interesting new form of communication sprang up. Electronic mail now bears little resemblance to the postal version that still dominates long distance communication. In almost all respects it is much better.

Email, as it is commonly known, is just a stream of characters transmitted from one person to another via a computer. A person can compose a message with a text editor, and store it like any other file. The sender can then specify the name and address of the receiver, and the message will be sent in a matter of minutes. The destination can be any computer connected to the Internet.

The Internet is a logical (rather than physical) network of computers stretching across the world. These computers are linked together by phone lines, and often these days, by high speed digital lines. A computer may become part of the Internet simply by connecting to a computer already on the net. This eliminates the need for a central host to route all messages through. Because of this, the network is tolerant of additions and deletions of the hosts of which it consists. The network can also grow without constraint.

Email is delivered by transfering the message from host to host. At each stop, the computer reads the address, and decides which computer to sent it to next. The deliverly programs can also deal with computers that are "down" (computers temporarily turned off) be re-routing the message through other hosts. By this means, the message is delivered to the destination computer, and it makes it available to the intended recipient.

The advantages of such a message system may not be obvious at first. Instead of taking days to get a message to someone across the country or the world, is only takes a few minutes. This is one of the principle advantages it has to normal mail. With emerging standards for the transmission of images, it is now practical to transmit these as well. An advantage over the phone system is that it is asynchronous as well. The senders and recipients using this system can communicate at their leisure, instead of having to be ready at the same time. Even though fax machines are becoming more popular, they are still quite slow and inefficient for pure text transmissions.

Out of the software that made Internet mail possible came network news. News started as a bulletin board for problems with computers. However, as more people got interested in news, the news was broken up into separate groups. Each group is for discussion of a specific area of interest. Currently there are about 700 such groups, ranging from automobiles, computer systems, humor, movies, science fiction, abortion, games, etc. In short, anything that people are interested in.

Anyone can post an article to a newsgroup (with a few exceptions). Then the article is sent across the Internet to all the hosts that receive news. Any user can subscribe to a newsgroup, and read what everyone has to say. The readership is (for the most part) very literate, if someone has a problem, that person can post an article about it and receive some good replys.

The net news is also a good source for up to the minute information about current events. During the apparent discovery of cold fusion last year, the only way to get up to date and (fairly) accurate information was via the net. People would attend the press conferences, and then afterwards type in what happened. It was much better than any network coverage because it could get a lot more technical and it was not constrained by any television broadcast requirements. It was also possible to get a copy of the Pons and Fleischman paper much sooner than through any technical journal.

The effect of all this on the scientific community is to speed up research greatly. Instead of waiting for the next journal to arrive by mail, scientist can find out what is going on right now not just last year or last month. This allows scientists to take advantage of new research quickly, which makes them work better.

Even non-scientific people can take full advantage of network news. Currently there are about 300,000 users of the Internet. Most of these people have access to it through their employer or school.

Even though this system is very good, it still has some major flaws. The first of which being that any news older than two weeks is deleted. This means that a new user of the Internet can't take advantage of previous information. The network news is also not a good place to find reference information, the facilities simply don't exist. It is not a good place to learn of research in general, only a place to learn of recent events. In short, it is not hypertext.

Ted Nelson first coined the term hypertext about 20 years ago. It is defined as simply "non-linear writing". The idea of hypertext is to allow the user more freedom than normal writing. Users of normal literature generally must follow the sequence the author has laid down; they are confined to only his thought processes.

In a hypertext system, the parts of a document would be accessed by links. Each link is a connection between related ideas. For instance, a passage on the effects of acid rain might be linked to information on fish kills, industry pollution levels, pollution legislation, and tree records. The reader would then be able to access all this information quickly. Not only would the information be current, but the information on trees and fish would be linked to information relating to them.

Individual books can also be written in hypertext. Normally the user would read along the top level, but when something is unclear, the user can use a button to get more detailed information.

The whole point of this system is speed and ease of use. With this system in place, it will take minutes instead of hours to find a particular piece of information. This speed and lack of hassle will encourage people to use the system more than they normally would use encyclopedias or the library. In short, hypertext will make learning fun and pleasurable.

Not only would hypertext be a great learning tool for children, but for adults as well. Everyone will be able to look up research in any area quickly, and also find out what is currently happening in the field. Even laypeople will want to use such a system. The hypertext database will also include sports information, politics, history, basically everything that is written down today. Everyone should be able to find something of interest. After they get interested and used to the system, then they may start using it just to learn things as well. Perhaps learning will become a new pastime.

There are some obstacles to the completion of a universal hypertext system. One of the biggest problems is the conversion of information into a common standard. Although almost all new information is stored electronically somehow, there are a wide variety of formats, and conversion can be difficult. The other problem is one of technology rather than a roadblock. Computers must become cheaper by an order of magnitude or more before such a system is practical to install world wide. However long it may take, this technology is inevitable, and it can only benefit mankind.

The whole goal of hypertext is to bring the computer closer to the user, and a less practical but interesting different approach is being researched now.

Virtural Reality (VR) is commonly defined as the attempt to simulate the world as we perceive it on a computer. This is not the only definition, and not necessarily a good one, but good enough for now.

The history of VR is not very long, it began about 20 years ago with the creation of the first "realistic" flight simulators. Then, as now, the cost of training pilots was high, and the cost of accidents even higher. These simulators consisted of a set of controls matching in detail the controls of an aircraft. Instead of windows, video monitors were used instead. The controls of the simulator were hooked up to a computer, which also controlled the video monitors. The computer would make the "windows" and the instruments of the plane react in response to the pilot's actions. Thus, the pilot could then fly the simulator in exactly the same way as he could a real plane.

Later simulators could also included weather conditions, other planes, air traffic control. Military versions allowed the launching of missiles and dogfighting. Recently, innovations in computer controlled actuators has allowed the cockpit of the simulator to move to reflect the attitude of the aircraft. These simulators can also simulate damage and failure of the systems of the aircraft. The instructors of the simulators can create any situation that could be encountered in a real flight and train the pilots to respond well to any emergency situation. Video displays have improved to the point that it is increasingly difficult to tell the difference between simulation and reality. The designers also pay attention to every detail, from the feel of the controls, to the way the tires squeal during landing.

The definition given above would severly limit what is possible. Virtural Reality is also the attempt to create an arbitrary existence on a computer. Instead of merely trying to what is "real", people are exploring alternate universes. One of these universes is called cyberspace.

The term "cyberspace" dates back to 1984 with William Gibson's novel Neuromancer, however, the idea dates back even further. In 1979 Vernor Vinge's novella "True Names" came out. It's principle characters interfaced computers by means of direct neural connection, no keyboards, video displays of mouses. The characters entered a virtual world, with everything represented by objects. Most programs would be other people or animals. Casting a spell becomes the metaphor for invoking a program. In short, everything on the computer is represented by some more than just a string of characters on a display.

Companies like AutoDesk and VPL are working on VR projects using head-mounted displays (HMD). These consist of two small LCD television screens. The computer that drives them While these are still primitive, getting improvement is an engineering problem. The real problem is input from the user. Currently these companies are using what is know as the DataGlove. It is a spandex glove covered with sensors to detect the position of the fingers. By making various gestures, the user can move around a virtual hand in the virtual environment that he sees through the HMD.

The problem with the DataGlove is that it provides no force feedback. The user cannot feel himself touching any walls or objects. A solution may be found that involves a robot arm that mimics the movements of the hand, and stops the users hand from moving into objects in the virtual world. For receiving input from the entire body, there is what's known as a DataSuit, which works on the same principle as the DataGlove. It is interesting to note that a version of the DataSuit with force feedback may end up working like Drexler's spacesuit (Drexler, 89).

The immediate applications of VR are few. Current processor technology is not up to displaying complex images quickly and cheaply. When VR is available to the "masses" in about 10 years, it will quickly find a home with video game enthusists. It is also useful for scientific investigations. A molecular workshop will be where someone can "walk" into a room and pick up atoms, assemble them, and study the properties of he has created. A VR system is also good way to control remote manipulators, especially ones that are not on the same planet. NASA has been doing much of the research in this area.

Most people involved in Virtual Reality research tend to think of the field as involving complex graphical interfaces. However, this is not necessarily all there is to VR. Another approach entirely has appeared in the last few months.

Text adventure games became popular soon after home computers did. Some of the more advanced ones had other people to talk to and mysteries to solve. These games weren't complex in the way of graphics, they just used text descriptions for all the people, places and things in the adventure. Now there is a new form of text adventure, and they are called MUDs.

The word MUD stands for Multi User Dungeon. There are several programs out now that are called TinyMUDs. These programs allow users of the Internet to enter a common adventure game. However, instead of everything in the world being controlled by the computer, there are other people there as well. The best way to explain things though is with an example:

This is a short session I had when I visited TinyHELL, one of many TinyMUD systems in this country. My name in TinyHELL is DON.MAC.

The commands I type in are preceded with a -----> .

*** My comments are surrounded with ***.

 -----> west 

You walk west into the square.
Pandemonium Town Square
This is a small square with a fountain in the middle of it. To the north is The
Great Abyss, south is Main Street, east is the Highway To Hell, and west is a
small path.
Contents:
Alexia
TERL
NARC
Chrysalis
Tsin_Ragnarok
Aleister
Myrthful
Mark_Evan
TinyHELL Topology Manual
large stone gargoyle with 'Out of Order' sign.
Tourist Information
Dallas Fantasy Fair Info

Perrisandra has arrived.

 -----> look Chrysalis 

Chrys has transparent skin, showing only the ghosts of the underlying muscles
and bone. She is wearing the distinctive costume of the White Queen of the
Hellfire Club: a white leather corset, tall white leather boots, long white
gloves, and a flowing white cape with a white fur collar. She smiles at you,
and informs you that even though she's a Wizard here and engaged to Random, she
still has time to talk. Amazing, isn't it?
Carrying:
note from Myrrdin_Wylt
note from Astaroth
A note addressed to Chrysalis in elvish script
Note from Moet
Note for Chrys from Galataeus
Note From Aleister
Note from Borim for Chrysalis
Note to Chrysalis
Note from Jeffq
Pulpy Scroll form Sylph
notebook
Flitterby Award for Comprehensive Building
engagement ring

	
	*** People can set up any kind of description for 
	themselves. Chrysalis is a wizard at TinyHELL, she 
	has a say-so in the building of major projects, and 
	she gets a lot of notes from other people ***
	

NARC has connected.

 -----> look Perrisandra 

You see a tiny female naiad with long, flowing brown hair. She is wearing a
swim suit which appears to be composed of iridescent fish scales. A crown of
seaweed, interwoven with pearls and coral is in her hair.

SpyBot has arrived.
SpyBot walks north to the Abyss.
SpyBot has left.

 -----> say hello, Spybot

You say "hello, SpyBot" 
Tsin_Ragnarok says "any mail for me, spybot?"

	 *** SpyBot is a robot, more on these later. *** 

Aleister says "Who would mail you?:)"
NARC thinks 'tis time to do calc. "Anyone know about double and triple
integrals as evaluated in their simple multiple-sigma notation? I am serious, I
need help for this stuff due at 12:30.
Tsin_Ragnarok grins at Aleister, "everybody! Hopefully!"

 -----> whisper NARC =Do you think that anyone can describe math
                              over an ascii terminal? 

You whisper "Do you think that anyone can describe math over an ascii
terminal?" to NARC.
NARC whispers "I think someone can help explain the theory. Do you understand
it?"

 -----> whisper NARC=I think I remember how it works. 

You whisper "I think I remember how it works." to NARC.

 -----> whisper NARC=what exactly do you not understand? 

You whisper "what exactly do you not understand?" to NARC.
NARC whispers "Great! Okay, what do you do when you have something like double
summation (sigma of i from 1 to m of [sigma of j from 1 to n of {delta x sub i
plus delta y sub i}]) ; how can you ex...oh, shit, you're right, this is
impossible."
NARC whispers "I'm sorry, just forget it, I thought I could somehow express it
clearly but I can't. Thanks anyway, though."

 -----> whisper NARC=I think you just integrate with respect to one varible, 
			    treating the other as a constant. 

You whisper "I think you just integrate with respect to one varible, treating
the other as a constant." to NARC.
NARC whispers "Okay, how's this. What if you ahve sigma of i from 1 to m of
(delta x sub j)? With the x being a function of j rather than i."
NARC whispers "or rather, that should be (delta y sub j)"
NARC whispers "Is it (m) x (delta y sub j)?"

 -----> whisper NARC=Hang on a sec, I gotta write this out. 

NARC whispers "Thanks, I'm trying to figure out my book here. It's not too
clear."
NARC smiles briefly then remembers Calc.
NARC goes idle.

	 *** the person playing NARC has disconnected from the game,
	but his alter-ego doesn't suddenly disappear, it stays where
	it is, inert *** 

 -----> east 

You walk east onto the highway.
Highway to Hell
This is the long, black, grim, and not-yet-well-described Highway to Hell. On
the north side is the Pandemonium Post Office.
Contents:
Perrisandra
Burma-Shave sign
Perrisandra enters the mail room to the north.
Perrisandra has left.

 -----> north 

You enter the mail room.
Mail Room
There is a massive wall of mailboxes, some manuals and listings on a shelf, and
a phone booth over on one wall. There are a few hungry looking demons here,
ready to whisk anything you drop back home. Laying on a shelf is a large
directory.
To the west is a small door, with a sign on it.
Contents:
Perrisandra
Animal

	 *** TinyHELL has an electronic mail system much like the one
	for the Internet.  It allows players in TinyHELL to send and
	receive short messages. *** 

 -----> west 

You walk into the entry room.
Mailer Demon's Entry
A small, damp cave, that has no place in a mail room. You see that further in
is the Mailer Demon's lair.
Contents:
gold coin

 -----> get gold coin 

Taken.

	 *** The coin is required to enter the lair.  Since there is
	only one coin, only one person can be in the lair at one
	time.  This prevents problems with two people trying to use
	mail at the same time. *** 

 -----> enter lair 

You show the Mailer Demon the coin. "Bah. I have no use for money. But for your
audacity, you may enter."
Mailer Demon's Lair
This is the nasty, smelly lair of the Mailer Demon.
Contents:
Mailer_Demon
Mailer_Demon says "Hello, DON.MAC."
Mailer_Demon says "Say 'help' to see commands I recognize."
Mailer_Demon says "There are 0 messages to DON.MAC."

	 *** In the UNIX operating system, a demon is a program that 
	controls devices and services, like printing files and
	delivering electronic mail.  The Mailer_Demon in TinyHELL is
	a robot with the same functions (more on robots later) *** 

 -----> say help 

You say "help"
Mailer_Demon says "I recognize these message-handling commands:"
Mailer_Demon says " read "
Mailer_Demon says " write ; write mailer_demon"
Mailer_Demon says " mail ; mail "
Mailer_Demon says " select me; select mailer_demon"
Mailer_Demon says " delete "
Mailer_Demon says " undelete "
Mailer_Demon says " boxes"
Mailer_Demon says " address; address "
Mailer_Demon says " setaddress ; setaddress none"
Mailer_Demon says " list"
Mailer_Demon says " help"
Mailer_Demon says "More detailed info may be available later on."

	 *** All these commands let the user manage and originate
	mail messages from other players.  It is even possible to
	use Internet mail from this room. *** 

 -----> say boxes 

You say "boxes"
Mailer_Demon says "Here are the people I've met:"
Mailer_Demon says "alika ash astaroth azalea badger bob"
Mailer_Demon says "bogey bosk chrysalis corum cthulhu dirque"
Mailer_Demon says "don.mac edge elthar erik flamme flitterby"
Mailer_Demon says "frand galataeus garrett hurin jessamine lady_friday"
Mailer_Demon says "mailer_demon mark_evan meadster merriwether molly mushi"
Mailer_Demon says "mutant myal myrrdin_wylt nivek quintus random"
Mailer_Demon says "richter shampoo sir_drunen sirriel skylord stewy"
Mailer_Demon says "stormin sweetie thrash three tsin_ragnarok vector"
Mailer_Demon says "wisher wulkwa yossarian"
Mailer_Demon says "That's all."

	 *** These people have mail drops  set up so that they can send
	and receive email through the Mailer_Demon.  At this time, I
	don't have any messages so I shall leave. *** 

 -----> leave lair 

Mailer Demon's Entry
A small, damp cave, that has no place in a mail room. You see that further in
is the Mailer Demon's lair.

 -----> drop coin 

Dropped.

 -----> east 

You leave the mail room.
Mail Room
There is a massive wall of mailboxes, some manuals and listings on a shelf, and
a phone booth over on one wall. There are a few hungry looking demons here,
ready to whisk anything you drop back home. Laying on a shelf is a large
directory.
To the west is a small door, with a sign on it.
Contents:
Perrisandra
Animal

 -----> inventory 

You are carrying:
"True Names" by Vernor Vinge(#11209)
You have 7 pennies.

	 *** Now I can take a look at what possions I have.  The
	penny is the currency of TinyHELL, they can be spent to
	create objects and rooms, among other things. *** 

Animal made a dropto so he doesnt have to get his mail here
Perrisandra says "how?"
Animal says "create a mailbox"
Animal says "and set your mailbox as STICKY"
Animal says "you can then link the new room to any room in your place"
Animal says "any mail which is placed in your mailbox will go to the new room"

	 *** Everyone has their own home set up in TinyHELL. Some 
	people have palaces and castles with lots of rooms.  
	Others, like myself, don't want to take the time 
	to create a complex home, and settle for an apartment. *** 

 -----> south 

You walk back out to the highway.
Highway to Hell
This is the long, black, grim, and not-yet-well-described Highway to Hell. On
the north side is the Pandemonium Post Office.
Contents:
Burma-Shave sign
You found a penny!

 -----> west 

You walk west into the square.
Pandemonium Town Square
This is a small square with a fountain in the middle of it. To the north is The
Great Abyss, south is Main Street, east is the Highway To Hell, and west is a
small path.
Contents:
Alexia
TERL
NARC
Chrysalis
Myrthful
Mark_Evan
TinyHELL Topology Manual
large stone gargoyle with 'Out of Order' sign.
Tourist Information
Dallas Fantasy Fair Info

 -----> QUIT 
Disconnected.

Right now, these MUDs are being used mostly for socialization. No serious work takes place there. Mostly, people walk around the world, meeting people and looking at what others have built. There are also some puzzles to solve that some of the players have set up. One of the most interesting uses of MUDs is for meetings. On March 22, 1990, I attended a meeting of the wizards of the MUDs in TinyHELL. Since these people were all across the country, this was the only way to get together and discuss policy questions. This is akin to teleconferencing, but far superior to the phone kind. All messages from people are kept separate, and since many people can read faster than they can listen, this is the fastest way to communicate to a large group.

As soon as it is feasible, this system will be extended to include graphics as well. It is not hard to envision a virtual office, where one person can walk into another's virtual office and talk to them. People have been predicting for years that the country will become decentralized, with every "office" worker with an office at home instead. This has not happened in large part because of the need to communicate effectively. This system won't completely eliminate the need for meetings, but it will obviate the need to commute to work every day. Perhaps soon it will be possible to move out into the woods and still stay in contact with the rest of the world via a satellite dish.

A common dream of people in VR is to have a direct neural connection between themselves and the computer. However with our current level of medical knowledge, such a procedure would be quite dangerous. Perhaps in a few years some kind of technology will enable us to work on the brain as we never have before.

Nanotechnology started about 3.5 billion years ago with the first self-replicating machine, commonly called a bacterium. Since then, the technology has evolved to produce sentient beings, namely humans. Since humans learned to use tools, they used what Drexler calls "bulk technology". This means manipulating groups of atoms instead of single ones. All our technology to this date is based on this style, and we have been restricted by it's limitations. We cannot easily control the molecular structure of our tools, and we have difficulty building very small and delicate tools.

Nanotechnology is aimed at manipulating individual atoms to produce arbitrarily design structures. This tech is currently being approached from two different angles, bulk technology (Scanning Tunneling Microscopy), and by redesigning existing nanomachines (protein synthesis). Both fields are advancing quickly, and the first fruits of this technology may be ready in 30 to 40 years.

At first general purpose (non-protein based) nanomachines will only be able to carry out simple tasks. For instance, they will be able to convert coal (or some other form of carbon) into diamond fibers. The will also be able to refine bauxite into aluminum, convert oil into plastics (and back) or convert water and carbon dioxide into sugars (like plants do). The nanomachines will be able to produce all the basic raw materials of industry much cheaper and better than before. These refining processes won't have much of an impact on the environment as well. Perhaps more importantly, they will also be able to disassemble toxic wastes into its component atoms. By the time this is possible, the environment will doubtless be quite polluted. Because of this, most raw materials producers will quickly go out of business, but that doesn't consist take up a large part of the economy, so a depression probably won't result.

Even though this is has more to do with manufacturing, nanotechnology will start imitating life in more ways than one. The most popular way for old style nanotech (the protein and DNA type) to make a large structure is to specify how to build a small component, and the instructions for linking the components together. This is the next likely phase for manufacturing as well. The style will replace production techniques that use nanotech to produce the raw materials and then use bulk technology (Drexler, 4) to shape them. This will allow us to build most of the devices we use today, tables, cars, and space ships. We will also be able to build nanocomputers on a large scale because each processor element can be made simply, and linked to millions of others. The stage will obviate the rest of the industrial sector, but much of this will be automated already. Some investors will lose a lot of capital (because the machines they have are obsolete) but not many jobs will be lost because this sector is already becoming increasingly automated. There will still be a demand for quality control people and repair crews.

Soon after this stage we will be able to control whole ecologies of nanomachines, and have them work together to produce anything possible. This is the time when cell repair machines will be available and we will be next to immortal. Fusion reactors (cold or hot) should be relatively easy to manufacture by this time. Hence power and raw materials (from the asteroids) will be quite plentiful. We will be able to make advanced spacecraft to settle the asteroids and other planets of our system, as well as other systems.

Nanotechnology will enable us to study ourselves in great detail. Not only will we fully understand how our cells work, but we will be able to study the structure of the brain as well. Understanding that has long been the goal of philosophers, psychologists, as well as other people.

Artificial Intelligence has long been the holy grail of computer science. To build a machine in the image of man's mind was once thought to be easy. But understanding how a nerve cell works is a lot different than understanding how 10e15 cells work together. Scientists have had a lot of problems figuring out just what the issues are. The problem has been, what make us intelligent? More importantly what makes up sentient? As of yet, no one knows. Research in this field has been to build a practical system that can do something useful. One of these fields is looking into ways to automate the design process. (Drexler, 65)

One of the problems few have considered is the question of rights. Many people today are concerned about the rights of animals, but what about the rights of computers? Soon we will have programs that seem to be sentient and alive. Does this make them so? And should they have rights the same as other people.

The problem is that I only know that I am alive and sentient, I don't know for certain that other people are. One person has said that if someone seems to be sentient, then he is. The classic test for this is called the Turing Test, after it's creator, Alan Turing (Hobbes, 324).

The test typically involves two teletypes in one room. One of the teletypes is connected to a human, while the other is connected to allegedly sentient computer. A judge then types questions to both participants, and after a while he has to guess which is the computer and which is the human. If he chooses incorrectly, or cannot decide, then the computer is considered to be sentient. Of course, the computer is expected to lie in order to convince the judge that it is human.

The conditions above may sound familiar. In TinyHELL, I can never be certain that the player I am talking to is really human. Recently some programs, called robots, have appeared on TinyHELL. Most of them are very primitive, but now there are some that seem much more real. Some of these robots incorporate a program first called Eliza. Eliza was supposed to be the first computer psychoanalyst. The program itself is fairly simple, it scans the statements of the player for keywords. It has a set of canned responses (which it can modify to fit the context) for each of the keywords it sees. With a lot of work to extend the program's database of responses, it can seem like a person, albeit a strange one. When more advanced programs do come along, the MUDs will be a perfect place to test them.

The problems start when we have a machine that passes the test. Will people consider it alive? Does turning off the machine and erasing the program constitute murder? Suppose the designers want to make some improvements to it, do they need it's consent? In most cases, if a person is judged mentally competent and of legal age, no one can make can just "take over" that person's life. That person has the right to make their own decisions.

Suppose that the designers win the right to change (or destroy) their creation. How far does this precedent go? Does it extent to all artificial life? Just because a computer is a box attached to a generator doesn't make it any more or less a valid life form than a houseplant or human. In Phillip Dick's book Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? genetically engineered humans, called replicants, are used as a slave labor force. Whenever replicants escape, they are immediately killed. Even though they were nearly human, just because they were manufactured, they didn't have any rights or freedom. The USA has paid a terrible price in blood to ensure that all of its citizens have some basic rights. How far will this extend in the future?

The original series Star Trek episode "Space Seed" talked of an earth where they did start breeding the "superior" human. These humans, lead by Khan, decided that since they were smarter and stronger, that they should rule instead of those that created them. Is this what we have to look forward to?

How will this technology affect human society? In every way possible. Some people have suggested that humans will remain the same, just doing different things. (Forsight #7, 8) I believe that humans won't even be human for much longer. With these technologies emerging, individuals will have more and more personal power. "Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." This old saying is going to be ever more true in the future. As personal power increases a thousandfold, each personality flaw in a person will be magnified a thousand times. Many people will want to live out their fantasies, and in the future, they will have to power to do so. Today, people with power (money) tend to do what they want, as opposed to doing what is legal, moral, or nice. They dodge taxes, steal from the poor, have their own television shows, use drugs or ruthlessly control small countries. Are these people different somehow because they have power? Are these people abnormal because they have money / fame / political power? Most people are bound by the (largely unwritten) laws of society because they don't have power. But the rock stars, the TV evangelists, the generalissimos do what they want because they can get away with it. The rest of us would do the same, if we had the chance, and soon we will.

And after all this technological change, the question becomes: What next? Most of human history records struggles of good people to make life for humans better. With virtual immortality, extinction of all diseases and ailments, AI computers and engineered life at out beck and call, what else is there? We will be able to satisfy any desire (possible in physics) almost instantly.

Entertainment will become a bigger business than it already is. But the biggest field will be in computer games. Specifically full 5 sense virtual reality games will become all the rage. People can step into a science fiction novel, or television show, or anything. The big business will be to write adventures for people to experience.

I am also sure that a lot of people will want to explore space. One suggestion has been that to explore the galaxy completely, that one ship will set out from the earth. Then after visiting a few systems, it duplicates itself, and the two ships head off in separate directions. Then the cycle repeats. At the far side of the galaxy, all the ships meet to share experiences at a Far Side Party. However, this party won't be for several thousand years, and we are going to have some problems in the next few.

Change to our society and ourselves will be happening faster than ever soon. Even though we know something about future technologies now, we can never be fully prepared for them. This coming high technology can't be suppressed for long, and that would be ill-advised in any case. It is as inevitable as change itself. All of us must be made aware of the dangers that lie ahead of us, and approach it with open eyes.


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Farmer, F. Randall, "Cyberspace: Getting There From Here", Journal of Computer Game Design, October 1989

Forsight Institute, Forsight Update #6, 08/01/89

Forsight Institute, Forsight Update #7, 12/15/89

Gibson, William, Neuromancer, Ace Books, 1984

Hodges, Andrew, Alan Turing: The Enigma, Simon and Schuster, 1983

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Steigler, Marc, David's Sling, Thor Books, 1989

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Walser, Randal, "Elements of a Cyberspace Playhouse", Proceedings of National Computer Graphics Association '90 Anaheim, March 19-22, 1990.