Sunday, March 20, 2011

A Computer's Tale


THEN: [Early eighties]

A demonstrator for I.B.M. in Chicago was showing a group of businessmen the infallibility of their latest computer. Having explained the salient features of the computer, he said: “ Gentlemen, you can ask the computer to know about anyone presently living in the marked area and the computer will give an instant correct answer”.
Immediately a gentleman volunteered, “ I want to know where my father is at this moment”
The demonstrator swiftly punched a tape, a disc whirred, and there was a click
from the output and a tape was ejected. The demonstrator read aloud “ Your father
is in Michigan fishing”.
The questioner immediately laughed saying” That thing is nuts! My father died nearly eleven years ago”
The demonstrator blushed but held firm. “ I may have asked the question incorrectly. I will rephrase the question and feed the computer”. He punched a new tape, pressed the button and out came a tape, which he read “ The man who married your mother has been dead for eleven years. Your father is in Michigan, fishing”.

NOW: [Twenty first century]

A scientist, an Artificial Intelligence protagonist, creates a super-super computer. This near-omniscient machine is to display its might and genius at an inaugural ceremony where important dignitaries are present: scientists and technologists of all disciplines, political leaders, men of importance from all walks of life. The claim is that this super-super computer can within micro-micro or nanoseconds answer any question that might be put to it.
At the inaugural ceremony, the President, the head of the whole country, gently requests anybody present in the audience to put the first question by way of inauguration. Everyone is keeping quiet—all the great stalwarts among the scientists and engineers remaining silent and holding their breath, lest they appeared silly and stupid before such an amazing omniscience, by asking a question.
A little boy gets up, puts up his hand and says “ Sir, may I have the privilege of asking the first question?”
“ Yes, come on” says the President “ Go ahead, boy, let it be your privilege to ask the first question”.
The boy mutters in utter innocence “ How does it feel to be a computer?”.
The computer activates, the various lights start glowing; seconds pass, minutes pass and almost an hour passes. There is no answer. The entire audience looks flabbergasted, dumbfounded, confounded and nonplussed. There is stunning silence all around. After a couple of hours of computation, the computer blinks and gives the message “ I do not know”. There is uproar, hilarious laughter every-where and a curious joy at the performance of this “God that failed’, derision at this ignoramus parading its wanton
The computer fails to answer a simple question , namely , how it FEELS to be a computer itself, because it is an ‘unintelligent omniscience’, capable of making very ‘intelligent’ computations at fantastic speed, much faster than an intelligent human being. Notice here the meaning of the word ‘Intelligent’ in regard to a human person and a computer. A human being is intelligent in the sense that he is SELF-AWARE. A computer is ‘intelligent’ in the sense of being capable of highly’ intelligent’ computations, being itself absolutely ‘unintelligent’, that is , not self-aware. This
‘Unintelligent omniscience’ is made to do all the bull work by the ‘little’ intelligence of a human being and it is doing things that he could never hope to do in a lifetime! But the
‘little intelligence’ of the human being has given birth to this fantastic ‘unintelligent genius’.
That is the paradox and the glory of CONSCIOUSNESS, the Conscious Principle
Or the CHAITANYA as the Upanishads would call it.

Swami Atmapriyananda of the Ramakrishna Mission.


Created: Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Created: WEDNESDAY, July 27, 2005


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