NASA scientists have recently stated that they believe the possibility of contacting alien civilisations will, if it happens, carry a high probability of them being machine-based intelligences. On the surface this seems to be a reasonable belief; we live in a highly technological age, the 21st century embodiment of which is probably the computer I am writing this article on, the end result from which has the capability of being read in every corner of the world.
That’s quite a technological achievement, and worthy of being thought of as having God-like powers in the eyes of our ancestors. Yet it is essentially achieved by the use of a number of increasingly cheap, mass-produced pieces of metal and plastic, powered by a mass-produced electrical charge achieved by something not much more sophisticated than spinning magnets [albeit on a huge scale]. All of course designed and engineered by biological humans.
Sometimes, the level of what we achieve physically and intellectually as ‘simple’ biological machines gets overlooked as we sit at awe in the capabilities of the hardware hard machines we create; we are in this secular, tech-orientated world in awe of machinery, forgetting through that wonder, that we in fact ourselves created that machinery for our own purposes as human beings and, also conveniently forgetting that the most powerful and sophisticated computers in the world are still not sentient; they cannot think for themselves, they do not have independent mobility and they are far from independent, reasoning decision making entities.
Our obsession with technology has of course led to us conjuring up our own myths and fairy tale anxieties, as have all cultures since the dawn of time. The Terminator films are probably a neat embodiment of these cultural anxieties; a computer network is allowed to become so powerful it reaches the point of independent thought and self-replication; the result is a machine-triggered nuclear holocaust which destroys much of humanity leaving the machines in charge of the planet.
There’s nothing new with this fable; it ranks up there with the end of the world as one of Man’s favourite folk tales; instead of Terminators, read mythological monsters. For nuclear Armageddon, read the wrath of Gods. We are a technology based culture, so it no surprise we have an inate fear of that technology turning round to bite us. What is interesting though in our culture, for all its pride in its reason and scientific method, for all of the scientist establishment’s belief that it close to understanding the very origins of the universe, it still believes that sentient, ‘hard’ machines are the naturally superior state to biological entities i.e. us, as simple flesh and blood humans.
Now it cannot be denied that technological add-ons enhance the biological body; this was discovered with the first rudimentary body armour, and goes all the way through to the current day from the use of vaccines up to using the Space Shuttle as a shield to go off-planet. But these are still all tools, and I suspect, will always remain that way. I don’t subscribe to this contemporary obsession with the superiority of technological machinery, over that of the biological machine.
Putting aside theological issues of souls within the body, which is a whole different debate, the human biological body is an astounding machine. It is self-repairing; the brain allows independent, self-governing movement; thought processes are as quick as any computer and the brain uses only a small percentage of its overall capacity. Large areas- which are in all probability entirely accessible- have been shut down for as yet unfathomable reasons. The biological body is adaptable, and capable of developing and using its own tools. Of course the biological body is relatively fragile; it can for example be easily squashed; but so of course can many metal and plastic machines and biological machines have a built in awareness of danger- commonly known as instinct- that is more of a self-preserver than any contrived ‘artificial intelligence’ programme.
In design terms, the biological ‘machine’ is the most advanced of physical entities in the universe as we currently understand it. If you have any religious/spiritual/metaphysical leanings, you would be forgiven for tending towards believing that an Intelligent Designer knew just that, which is why biological, not technological, life abounds. And even hard science adherents who discount the idea of ‘Intelligent Design,’ have to acknowledge the fact that technology-based machines are created by us, to do our bidding and no matter how detached we try to be, a part of us will always go into that machine in some way. And because of that, I believe it will be nigh on impossible to create a ‘sentient’ machine separate from humanity.
In our technology obsessed culture we have lost sight of many phenomena and natural laws outside of the narrow tunnel vision of materialist science, much of which was once not just better understood but taken for granted by more ancient cultures. To my mind, one of the most significant, is our loss of realisation that the biological body is the most adaptable and sophisticated of all ‘machines’ and technology will come nowhere near replicating its complexities and strengths. Machines will not inherent the Earth, or the universe for that matter; because they will never be superior in form than biological entities.