Earth on Fire: The Overheating Planet

Earth on Fire: The Overheating Planet

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Wednesday, 1 February 2006

HOW NOT TO MAKE JOE'S OF OURSELVES

In 1946, Will F. Jenkins, a fifty-year-old American science-fiction writer, sat down to write a short story under his nom de plume Murray Leinster.
1946 was also the year in which ENIAC, the first large-scale digital computer was completed in the United States, and just three years after the world's first electronic computer--Colossus--had sprung into life in wartime Britain (although it was to stay a secret for thirty years). ENIAC was 100 feet long, 10 feet high, weighed 30 tons, contained more than 18,000 vacuum tubes and 70,000 transistors, and drew over 100,000 watts of electricity. It needed a cooling system so big that it could have serviced a twenty-storey building.
Very impressive physical statistics, but by today's standards the machine that had them was not very powerful, even though it could do in two hours what would have taken 100 engineers a year. It was thought pretty marvellous at the time, but what computers would become half a century later was still far beyond the imaginative horizon. Even when IBM began looking at computers a few years later it thought the total world market for them would never be more than twelve machines.
Big Blue should have read Leinster's story. He foresaw exactly what was coming, not that you would think so from the unassuming, slightly odd, title: A Logic Named Joe.
That story has since become one of the most famous in science-fiction, because it talks about a society in which every home and office has what we now call a PC. But the machines he described were far more advanced than today's PCs; they were what might be called the hypermedia machines that we have only fairly recently begun talking about.
Way back then the term PC, had not been invented, and even 'computer' had not penetrated the general consciousness, so Leinster called his machines 'logics', hence the title.
His story would have been remarkable even if he had still been alive to write it in 1986 (he died in 1975), but to have written it in 1946 is an astonishing, and unique, feat of prescience.
He not only predicted the hypermedia home/office computer. He also predicted the microprocessor--the 'chip'--although its invention was over twenty years in the future. Again, because the terms integrated circuit, microprocessor and chip had not been invented in 1946, he had to invent his own term--'Carson Circuits.' He could not possibly have known of course that it would be a chap called Poor, not Carson, who would be the first to design a computer on a chip, but getting nine out of ten when no one else even knows there is a test is not bad.
Leinster's story also predicted memory cards, but they had not been invented so he called them data-plates. He predicted a global network of publicly accessible databases, but they had not been invented so he called them tanks. And he predicted that videophones would be integrated into PCs, but they had not been invented so he called them vision-phones.
Nearly fifty years later we have only got as far as creating chips, and, recently, memory sticks have begun to be widely used, but we still have not come anywhere near universality in computers, let alone hypermedia machines, or even multimedia ones.
But Leinster's astonishing story is much more than a dazzling array of technological predictions. It also carries a warning.
It is told from the point of view of an unnamed maintenance man who works for the Logics Company. He discovers one day that some undetectable, accidental hiccup in the production line has created a machine--which he later dubs Joe--that has a mind of its own.
When he had, unknowingly, installed it late one Saturday in August in 'the home of Mr Thaddeus Korlanovitch at 119 East Seventh Street, second floor front', he had left, as usual, thinking that 'everything was serene.'
But the Korlanovitch family went out on Sunday and the kids left Joe turned on. 'He' must have been a bit 'bored' because he went looking in the 'tank' network for something to do.
Joe, as the maintenance man tells us, was not being vicious, just logical, just using his abilities. He discovered things. He made connections. Using logic. He discovered that there are things humans want to know, but don't. So he made an addition to the services offered by the global network of logics and tanks--one that, logically, got past the 'censor circuits.'
'If you want to know something and don't know how to do it--ask your logic!' suddenly flashed up on every screen on the planet.
'!', indeed.
People assumed that it was all official. They asked questions. They got answers. Perfectly logical answers.
Like the man who wanted to know how to murder his wife and get away with it, the one who wanted to know how to prevent his spouse finding out that he had been drinking, the one who wanted to make a perpetual-motion machine, the one who wanted to make flawless counterfeit money, and the bank manager who wanted to know how to rob his bank undetected.
Logics, backed by Joe, gave people whatever information they asked for. They held nothing back. They did not even stint, for example, when unsavoury and unsocial types asked them how they could acquire supplies of high-explosives.
You get the picture. The results were rapidly becoming catastrophic. And would have got a lot worse if an incandescent blonde femme fatale who had known the maintenance man long before he became a happily married pillar of the logic world had not asked her logic how she could get in touch with 'Ducky' again.
The newly enhanced system took a little while to work out how to do that, but the result was that a maintenance man's life was suddenly invaded by incandescent chaos and threatened with meltdown of the fatale kind.
He, though, had no wish to become husband number five of this blonde weapon of male-destruction, and even less to suffer the fate of the one who had shuffled off his mortal coil very precipately after she had added a modicum of lead to his system at lethal velocity.
Fortunately the maintenance man had the presence of mind to ask the network if a logic could be modified 'to co-operate in long-term planning that human brains are too limited in scope to do?'
Being logical it said yes, and told him how.
And when he asked if one had ever been produced with that modification, it told him, yes, just one, and where it had been installed. He promptly raced over the Korlanovitch flat, pulled Joe out and replaced him with a normal model. The new Joe-based tell-me-anything service immediately vanished from every logic screen.
Whew! Civilisation had been saved. And it was only Monday.
But the maintenance man succumbed to temptation. He didn't smash Joe to smithereens. After all, he reasoned, he might come in handy--for personaluse only, of course, and tamed a bit. So he put him down in his basement.
Back in the real world of 2006, we have not yet reached far past the starting point of Leinster's story. We have not yet produced the unit technology, although we are close; we have not saturated the globe with networks and databases, although we have made a solid start; we have not yet come anywhere near the numbers needed to achieve 'logics' for everyone, although computer factories are churning out their precursors like so many grains of sand, and we recently chalked up the billionth person on the Internet, the crude forerunner of the network Leinster predicted.
But there are rich and powerful companies beavering night and day to lead us to the threshold of his world, a world in which 'logics are civilisation,' as that maintenance man tells us. A world in which, 'If we shut off logics we go back to a kind of civilisation we have forgotten how to run!'
But before we get to that threshold--long before--we must ensure that 'Joe' shall never exist, because in a world full of such overly smart machines--or even just where we have easy access to unlimited information--Pope's famous dictum would be turned on its head and our social fabric rent asunder:

It is not, 'A little learning is a dangerous thing,
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring.'

But, 'O'ermuch wrong learning is most dangerous of all,
Choose well what you know or the world will fall.'

In A Logic Named Joe the rending asunder almost happens by accident. We must prevent it from happening by design.

[If you want to read the original story, it can be found in the anthology Machines that Think, edited by Isaac Asimov, Patricia S. Warrick, & Martin H. Greenberg and published under Penguin's Allen Lane imprint.]