Stephen Hawking predicts cyborg ascendancy

Let's re-engineer our genes to compete

Poor Stephen Hawking. One has to expect that decades of wheeling about in a motorized basket and speaking through a machine like Davros, whilst being venerated by naive post-docs as a paragon of wisdom simply because he's good at maths, would inevitably soften his brains. It's just a shock to see him become a gibbering bubblehead quite this soon.

And yet the renowned Cambridge physicist has claimed that intelligent computers are set to take over the world, and that we must modify our DNA to narrow the gap.

"The danger is real," he asserted against all reason during an interview published in the German magazine Focus. He further recommended that we humans hurry to "develop....technologies that make possible a direct connection between brain and computer, so that artificial brains contribute to human intelligence rather than opposing it."

Won't Captain Cyborg be gratified.

The enduring fallacy

Poor Stephen Hawking. To say that we humans should modify our DNA so our brains might compete with the awesome calculating power of near-future advanced computers is like saying that we should alter it as well so our legs might keep up with the awesome speed of cars, buses and trains.

And conversely, to observe that we can't out-calculate a computer is exactly like observing that we can't outrun a Ferrari. It's true, yes, but it just doesn't matter.

We humans invented such delicious and decidedly un-mechanical things as religious awareness, dance, language, visual arts and literature (and I say in that order). We are religious creatures; we are artistic creatures; and when we're exceptionally cool, we're literary creatures.

No machine will be. Put this article in a time capsule and let it be read fifteen centuries from now. I tell my remote descendants with absolute confidence that they will not have built a religious, artistic, or literary machine. With advanced genetic engineering they may duplicate a human being, fine; but they will never, never ever, simulate one. It can't be done.


In the 1969 movie Colossus: The Forbin Project -- a sort of Cold-War version of Frankenstein -- it's proposed that raw computational power will defeat human genius. It's a fabulous flick, but we call movies like it fiction for a reason.

Yes, advanced machines may one day benefit from fuzzy logic and ape certain human thought processes, but ultimately, due to their very nature, they've got to be rational in order to function.

We humans are not bound by such prosaic limitations. We're capable of something which no machine, in any future we might imagine, will ever be capable of: irrational insight.

This delicious faculty is aggressively underrated by the intellectually naive because during the Enlightenment it was fervently believed that the universe is, in its deepest metaphysical nature, entirely rational.

Of course this is utter poppycock, like so much of the thinking which the Enlightenment inspired among generations who've since dared imagine themselves learned merely because they've applied themselves intently, and successfully, to university studies.

The rationalistic, Cartesian universe our Enlightenment Fathers so desperately longed for has long been discredited. Of course if they'd read their Greek in school instead of applying themselves to 'objective' measures of intellectual accomplishment, they'd have known that centuries earlier Plato's Theaetetus neatly (and mathematically) exposed the folly of this childish desire.

It's taken many centuries for us to work thorough the rubbish and arrive at a cosmology the Greeks wouldn't laugh at. The universe, we're finally beginning to observe, is anything but rational.

And yet the Enlightenment desire to rationalize it remains, perpetuated by the intellectual cowardice of our most venerated social, political and educational institutions. Even today we find it difficult to recognize that the universe is fundamentally irrational and that our true edge in dealing with it is our occasional ability to grasp it on its own terms with the mysterious and unreliable gifts of wisdom and irrational insight.

No machine devised through ratiocination will ever acquire that edge. It can't be done. Only a machine devised through uncanny wisdom and irrational inspiration will possess a hope of competing with us; and I remain confident that our overwhelming rationalistic inclinations will survive as long as we do, and frustrate that possibility for as long as our species should survive. ®

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