Sunday, February 6, 2011

Computers of Future Passed, part II: Man vs Machine

Most of us don't think of the folktale of John Henry as a science fiction story. But, in a sense, it is one. It is a story about how new technology affects people and society. At the time the story was invented, strong men were feeling the new competition from stronger machines. Today, we take it for granted that a forklift can lift more than the strongest person in the world, and that a bulldozer can move more earth in a day than a person can in a month.

Today, humans have another (greater) source of pride with which machines are competing: our brains. And so, not surprisingly, many science fiction stories on computers and robots deal in the question of what will happen when the machines become smarter than us. In the real world, the much-publicized Garry Kasparov versus Deep Blue chess match of 1997 was the intellectual equivalent to John Henry versus the steam-powered hammer.

Although computers can play mean chess, compose music, write poetry, and devise clever TV commercials, they can't yet do everything that humans can. I'll leave it to the philosophers, linguists, psychologists, and computer scientists to debate over whether they will match or exceed all our cognitive abilities someday. I simply know that such prospects are good material for science fiction. My SF comic book Myths from the Future contains stories about intelligent robots, and a great awakening, when robots become self-aware. And I have comic book in preparation (still untitled), wherein a humans brain is copied into a new cyborg body--although it isn't exactly the body he was hoping for!

Photo at top: statue of John Henry outside town of Talcott, West Virginia. Photographer Ken Thomas has released this image into the public domain.

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