Friday, January 8, 2010

Dark World: Keeper of the Keyboard

[Slight change: I originally meant to make the Dvorak Manor arc short, but I'll lengthen it a bit to accommodate a few worthwhile characters.]
(The story begins here.)

“The fundamental flaw of would-be technocracies,” Dvorak continued, “is the human element. The experts who make the decisions have human shortcomings—prejudices, ambitions, and so forth—that interfere with their judgment. A machine does not; it can follow logic alone.”

“But the problems of human life are too complicated for a machine to solve,” Darren objected. “A machine can follow simple rules, such as those of arithmetic, but it can’t truly create, so it can’t adapt to new situations. It can’t even understand current situations.”

“Understanding is a problem,” Dvorak admitted. “The information must be in a form that the machine can use. Centuries ago, philosophers talked about philosophical languagesthe Real Character, the Ars Signorum, and so on—that would describe things instead of just naming them with arbitrary labels. They didn’t realize how long an adequate description would be, of course. Such a language would be unworkable for human beings, but a machine could conceivably use it.”

“It still wouldn’t understand the situation,” Darren said. “You would merely codify your own understanding and have the machine apply it blindly. That could lead to worse human error than mere prejudice or ambition.”

“But it could be refined. Just as modern breeders can accomplish in a few generations what took evolutionary forces, operating blindly, hundreds of generations to achieve, so the machine and language can be refined. For that matter, some of my colleagues believe that the universe is self-ordering: it may be its nature to generate both complexity and unity, much as a seed does. If so, all I need do is produce the initial machine, and a kind of mechanical evolution will take over.”

“That’s what I’m afraid of. You may think this machine and this language will solve everything, like the genie from Aladdin’s Lamp, but you may open Pandora’s Box instead—and then who will shut it for you?”

“It cannot be shut. Though you fear it, progress is inevitable—but hastening it will save untold misery. If Korsakov’s pioneering work of a century ago had received its due, we would even now have an age of information beyond anything the world has ever known.”


Semyon Korsakov. Where others saw punched cards only as a means of controlling machines, he thought of using them to collect and correlate data. The Imperial Academy of Sciences rejected his idea, but some true intellectuals pursued it—secretly, to avoid official interference. I am their heir. Come, I shall show you something more impressive to the ordinary mind than my keyboard.”

Next: Helpers of Hephaestus

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