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  • Writer's pictureMartyn Rhys Vaughan


The idea of superhuman intelligence residing in mechanical devices is, as we have seen, a very old one. It is a very common trope in Science Fiction, but before we consider its history in such speculative fiction we will examine the thoughts of one of the giants of that field—Arthur Charles Clarke (1917-2008).

Apart from being a fiction writer, Clarke also wrote non-fiction science articles, as well as hosting two TV series on unusual phenomena. In 1962 he wrote “Profiles Of The Future”: a series of essays about how he saw scientific and cultural movements might develop. As in all attempts to predict the future, he fell short in several areas, most amusingly in his view that hovercraft would replace the world’s navies and supertankers.

However, Clarke was also a firm believer in the development of artificial intelligence. This can clearly be seen in his early novel “The City And The Stars” (1956). The story is set many thousands of years in the future, in and around the city of Diaspar. The city is supposedly ruled by a human Council “but the Council could be overridden by a superior power—the all-but-infinite intellect of the Central Computer … Even if it was not alive in the biological sense, it certainly possessed at least as much aware and self-consciousness as a human being.” We must remind ourselves that these words were written only a few years after electronic digital computers had entered the public imagination.

Returning to “Profiles”, Chapter 18 is entitled “The Obsolescence Of Man”. In it, Clarke sets out a series of reasons why humanity will superseded by artificial intelligences.

“The tools the apemen invented caused them to evolve into their successor, Homo sapiens. The tool we have

nvented IS our successor. Biological evolution has given way to a far more rapid progress—technological evolution…For at least 3,000 years, therefore, a vocal minority of mankind has had grave doubts about the ultimate outcome of technology. From the self-centred human point of view, these doubts are justified. But that, I submit, will not be the only—or even the most important—point of view much longer.”

Clarke points out that (in 1962) computers are only in the very earliest stage of their evolution. He goes on to quote the Turing Test, which was little known at the time. He states that we are only decades away from devising a machine which could pass the test—and in this he has been proven correct. He quotes Norbert Wiener who pointed out that even if humans cannot create machines which are more intelligent than humans, their speed of operation would make such understanding (and control) irrelevant.

Clarke points out that our understanding of the universe has been limited by our biological shortcomings. For instance, any optician would reject the human eye as a camera due to its inbuilt inefficiencies. Humans cannot directly sense radiation outside the visible spectrum and thus be unaware that X-Rays are killing them. Indeed, they can only function (i.e. stay alive) within very narrow bands of temperature, pressure and radiation—all of which machines can be designed to overcome. These limitations cannot be overcome because they are integral parts of the nature of the fragile organic compounds used to build us. Chemical signalling based on molecular neurotransmitters cannot possibly compete with messages sent directly by electrical currents. According to Clarke, the famed polymath John von Neumann (who laid out the basic structures of computer design still used in many computers today) calculated that electronic cells could be 10 billion times more efficient than biological ones.

Clarke also points out that a large percentage of the energy requirement of a human are used, firstly, in growing to a size where said human can perform useful work, and secondly, to maintain such a body when it has reached the optimum size. Only a fraction of the energy requirement is expended on useful activities.

Clarke was a believer in that intelligence can only arise when faced with existential struggles. And so he believed that it was machines which would develop space travel and therefore true intelligence. “ It may well be that only in space, confronted with environments fiercer and more complex than any to be found upon this planet, will intelligence be able to reach its fullest stature.”

He closes with some crumbs of comfort for the downcast humans who have finally accepted their inferiority: “ Man, Nietzsche said, is a rope stretched between the animal and the superhuman—a rope stretched across the abyss. That will be a noble purpose to have served.”

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