The Computer Whiz on Robo Mysteries

For years I’ve been asking writers whether they think technology will change the role of literature, and for the most part, they’ve displayed unswerving faith in the power of  story as communicated in the oral or written word. Recently, at a conference at the Sorbonne, I met Stuart Russell, professor of computer science at Berkley and co-author of Artificial Intelligence: A Modern Approach, and Do the Right Thing: Studies in Limited Rationality—stipulated textbooks in over 1,200 universities—and in a side street in Paris, on a very rainy day, he gave me a different take on the story.

Technology, he said, has already changed the nature of literature. The invention of moving pictures and computers has created a new literary genre in video games, multiplayer role-playing games, virtual worlds and other interactive fictive devices. But authoring tools are still slow and primitive, with centuries of experimentation and adaption ahead. Stuart believes the role of literature is bound to change because these new genres are likely to be more engrossing and enveloping than poems and novels. “An author may become, in essence, someone who designs his readers’ lives, or the envelope of experiences and choices in which their lives are lived…Are ‘literary’ authors going to stay out of these new genres and leave the lives of future generations in the hands of others?”

For Luddites like myself, the prospect of an increasingly mechanised world is somewhat terrifying. Stuart’s area of expertise—Artificial Intelligence—is even more terrifying. It conjures up a kind of Wall-E dystopian future, where humans are obese airheads and robots rule. How to define AI? What is it exactly? These are existential questions.

“Human intelligence is responsible for everything that we call civilization,” Stuart tells me, “It’s a cliché to call it the greatest mystery in the universe, but perhaps true nonetheless. AI tries to unlock this mystery by building computer programs that exhibit the same kinds of intellectual capabilities: perceiving, learning, discovering, making decisions, and so on.”

The first serious programme Stuart wrote was one that learned to play noughts and crosses by playing itself. This was at a local college near his high school, where he was exploring computer science partly out of curiosity, partly to get out of compulsory rugby. He followed that up with writing a chess programme on Imperial College’s supercomputer, a CDC 6600, a degree in physics at Oxford and a PhD in Stanford in computer sciences. As a child he read a ton of science fiction, “To me, Newton and Einstein made the best use of their minds, so naturally I wanted to be a particle physicist and discover the next great theory.”

Stuart belies my poet’s prejudice against mathematicians, physicists and AI honchos. He is not, as the Wallace Stevens poem goes, one of those “Rationalists, wearing square hats,/Thinking in square rooms,/ Looking at the floor,/ Looking at the ceiling.” He has a secondary avatar as a choir singer, something he finds intensely engaging and thrilling. When he speaks about music, his tone changes, moves into a realm of emotion. He tells me that the most fundamental human element that cannot be replicated by a machine is consciousness. “We haven’t a clue how to make conscious machines. It’s a complete mystery.” I quietly thank the robo-gods for that.

The writer is a dancer, poet and novelist.


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