Zen and the Art of Software One of the greatest things about ‘Flat World Navigating’ the internet, is that it enables connections with fascinating minds, even if from a distance. If you are able to then reach out to those magnificent minds and invite them to have a chat – the encounter can be transformational. Such was the case with Grady Booch, who is, I believe, a most genial genius – a man who brings Zen to Art of Software.
During World War II, Vannevar Bush served as director of the U. S. Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD), from which arose projects ranging from the very pragmatic (such as the proximity fuse), to the speculative (the ENIAC comes to mind), to the profound (namely, the Manhattan Project). After the war, Bush turned his attention to the opportunities of leveraging the scientific infrastructure that was born in conflict to the needs of a world at relative peace. In 1945, in The Atlantic, Bush published “As We May Think” in which he described the Memex. As he wrote, “The world has arrived at an age of cheap complex devices of great reliability; and something is bound to come of it.” Indeed, much has come of it.
Will man-made intelligent devices ever become “sentient?” IBM Fellow Grady Booch — a pioneer in software engineering and collaborative development environments — says the answer is yes. In fact, he says the rise of sentient machines is “inevitable.” Booch defines sentience as having typically human characteristics, such as self-awareness, the ability to set goals, and a sense of creativity: “If we don’t achieve that degree of sentience, I believe we’re very close to achieving the illusion of sentience whereby we are in a place where we’ll, on a large-scale basis, have to interact with these things.” At Silicon Valley’s Computer History Museum this week. Booch cited the rise of systems able to respond to voice recognition and synthesize speech, such as Apple’s Siri and IBM’s Watson computer, which competed on the “Jeopardy” game show. Although “Watson is not sentient like the HAL 9000,” the electronic antagonist from the movie “2001: A Space Odyssey,” he notes, some of the pre-sentient machines already can harm humans. One example of harmful pre-sentient devices include the intelligent drones used in warfare: “We’re building a generation of autonomous devices that kill.” Still, he notes, these systems are equipped with intelligence to distinguish between legitimate targets and what not to target. Pre-sentient computers are also displacing humans from many jobs. “We can now outsource to our machines,” even though these systems are not yet sentient, Booch says. Smart devices are providing us with new functionality, but at a cost: “We are slowly surrendering our intelligence, our choice, our responsibility, to devices such as this.” Although such sentient machines are inevitable, Booch says that humankind can “co-evolve” with these intelligent devices.
A computer dubbed Watson is on the loose, and that means it’s silly season. Again. Watson, you’ll recall, is a computer that IBM, its proud creator, touts as displaying a new level of artificial intelligence. IBM invented the machine specifically to play the TV quiz show game Jeopardy, which it did quite well at in a 2011 contest with two men who’d won big on the show itself. Since then, and with some fanfare, Watson has been put to use as an advisor to doctors and nurses, helping some to diagnose ailments and others to decide on treatments for patients with lung cancer. Speculation is rife about what other applications this kind of machine might be useful for. IBM execs have mentioned insurance, legal research, telecom, and banking. Clearly, like every big computer company, IBM wants to be perceived as a leader in technology, and equally important, in helping customers apply technology in profitable ways. If nothing else, Watson is a big help to IBM in that regard, as is the firm’s DeepBlue computer, which plays grandmaster-level chess. Just this past week, IBM fellow Grady Booch, a big name in software development circles, made headlines here (and here, too) talking about how it’s “inevitable” that computers will one day be sentient — having feelings, that is. Reportedly, he made this comment in a talk at a West Coast computer history museum. (Unfortunately, no video or transcript of his comments is available on the web.) Assuming Booch actually does believe that computers are destined to acquire human feelings, he is not alone. Inventor and author Ray Kurzweil has amassed a sizeable following with his argument that computing and bio-engineering technologies are now advancing at such a rate that machine intelligence will exceed that of humans by 2030, or perhaps earlier. The human mind, Kurzweil states, is in essence just another computer program, potentially describable in binary code that would, one day, be available for copying, editing, storing, and loading back into a human brain for execution. Somehow, I doubt this very much. Perhaps one day computers will have feelings of some sort, or at least the ability to make us believe that. Already, there are computers that seem able to understand natural language and create new sentences based on some digitized description of the world and human ideas. Watson, for instance, has been fed several terabytes of text documents, including the entire contents of Wikipedia, which it is programmed to search at great speed and, to a fashion, reason about.
IBM Fellow Grady Booch, co-creator of UML and object-oriented programming, has launched “a transmedia project” seeking to engage “audiences of all ages in the story of technology that has changed humanity.” He’s hoping to put together a multi-part television documentary, together with a book, e-book, website, app, and educational curriculum to tell the story about computing to the general public. The goal, he says, is to “teach the essential science of computing, present the stories of the people, events, and inventions of computing, examine the strong connections among computing, science, and society, [and] contemplate the future.”