Technology: The Cybernated Generation

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Learning About Life. Most scientists now agree that too much was made in the early days of the apparent similarities between computers and the human brain. The vacuum tubes and transistors of computers were easy to compare to the brain's neurons—but the comparison has limited validity. "There is a crude similarity," says Honeywell's Bloch, "but the machine would be at about the level of an amoeba." The neurons, which are the most important cells in the brain, number some 10 billion, and each one communicates with the others by as many as several hundred routes. So mysterious does the brain remain that few of the major connections among the neurons have been traced, and they may never be. It is clear, however, that each neuron is itself like a computer, and that eventually the idea that a machine has humanlike intelligence will become part of folklore. "We'll laugh at the idea," says Dr. Herbert Teager, an M.I.T. physicist, "as we do at Descartes' theory that the pineal gland is the center of the mind."

That is not to say that the computer cannot learn. Some computer experts believe that the machines can learn by themselves through trial and error, as children do, evaluating their mistakes and searching for better procedures. This is the heuristic approach: the method by which a computer acquires a knowledge of checkers or learns to play war games. In any case, nearly all experts agree that the computer will eventually achieve close symbiosis with man, more and more informing and reforming his entire society.

Before that day arrives, the computer has quite a bit to learn about life. Put to picking ideal marriage partners, a computer has selected brother and sister. Asked, "How do amphibians protect themselves?", a computer at California's System Development Corp. typed out its reply: "Roman soldiers protected themselves by locking shields." The computer had, of course, mindlessly confused key words. Though its memory units give it an impressive quantitative advantage, the computer is qualitatively inferior to any schoolboy.

Nonetheless, it is the closest that man has ever come to transferring his intellectual powers to machines, and its needs and accomplishments are sure to occasion a lot of debate. In a book written shortly before his death, M.I.T.'s Norbert Wiener, the "father of cybernation," said that "the reprobation attaching in former ages to the sin of sorcery attaches now in many minds to the speculations of modern cybernetics. The future offers us little hope for those who expect that our new mechanical slaves will offer us a world in which we may rest from thinking. Help us they may, but at the cost of supreme demands upon our honesty and our intelligence."

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