Letters to the Editor



Re: Editor’s page – (The Palestine Question)


I just read your editorial (I liked it very much) and I figured I'd

toss a comment at you before the rest of the issue has me flummoxed.  Your points are well-taken and even-handed, but one seems to be missing – and that is that many of the Arab states in the region are de facto religious states as well.


Also, re: "Heresies in Pursuit of Peace" is good stuff.  While I don't

necessarily agree on all points (and after a quick look at Starhawk's web, I also doubt if we'd be likely to hang out and pound beers) the essay is exceptionally well written and more importantly, persuasive.  Normally, when I read similar articles (or other writings by people "like her") I find myself arguing even before I'm finished reading.  Not so in this case. Maybe you could have it translated into Hebrew and Arabic and send it to some others who might ought to read it.


Bob Cohen

New York




RE: Are machines living things?


The latest issue of Southern Cross Review features a discussion between Stephen Talbott and Kevin Kelly, an A.I. enthusiast, about whether or not living things are entirely distinct from machines. Mr. Kelly comes up with a number of astonishing and objectionable ideas about our manipulation of life and our attempts to create intelligent machines. In this connection, I heartily recommend Val Setzer's article "Artificial Intelligence or Automated Imbecility?" posted at his website ( http://www.ime.usp.br/~vwsetzer ). I am not sure how many people even in the A.I. camp would agree with some of Kelly's comments:


"The arguments for why living beings are different from created beings range from, "living beings are trying to express their wholeness while created beings don't" to "parts of an organism interpenetrate each other, and do so in a manner whereby the whole is revealed as active within each part, while in a machine they do not." These reasons can seem as far fetched to me as some of the reasoning of old as to why white people were categorically different from blacks."


By this line of reasoning, I wonder if Mr. Kelly thinks we should allow computers to vote in elections, or if it should be made illegal to turn them off? But let us give him some credit; obviously, he wants to apply this principle to "intelligent machines" such as are promised by A.I. enthusiasts, but which do not exist yet. I suppose that if it were possible to construct a machine that could think and feel, then we would have to consider whether that creation has human rights. As Val makes clear in his article, however, such machines are impossible.


The question now presents itself: why do people want strong A.I. to be

possible? I have given this question some thought, and came up with the following ideas:


1. People want personal immortality. Because this is no longer available to materialists in a traditional way, they dream of being able to "download" their consciousness into a computer where it can exist indefinitely, so long as the power's on. This dovetails with dreams of power and heightened abilities that would come with giving oneself a robot body and random access to computer data etc. Dreams of mechanical immortality are plentiful in science fiction.


2. Humanity is disgusted with itself, and therefore dreams of being replaced by something better, like intelligent robots. This is manifest in the ending of the movie A.I., where humanity has managed to exterminate itself by causing floods through global warming (rather like the Old Testament God judging mankind unfit and seeking to wipe us out in a flood).


3. People wish for, but at the same time fear, control over all things. If strong A.I. were possible - that is, if humans were shown to be mere physical systems that can be replicated by machines - one could say that full control of human life is possible. This was, of course, the dream of B.F. Skinner and his behaviourist programme as outlined in Beyond Freedom and Dignity.


Fortunately there is a strong revulsion in popular consciousness to the realization of these dreams/nightmares. One sees this in immensely popular movies such as Terminator and the Matrix, in which intelligent machines are cast as the epitome of evil. It seems to me that the A.I. enthusiasts simply lack the imagination to foresee what their programme really entails, whereas certain films realize it well.


Robert Zimmer