FleshFactor: "The Executioner's Motto"
A E C F O R U M - "F L E S H F A C T O R"
There's a slogan among artificial intelligence (AI) researchers that runs
If you take care of the syntax, the meaning will take care of itself.
Dubbed the Formalist's Motto by philosopher John Haugeland, this turns out
to be a formula for erasing the human being.
Stated simply, the idea runs something like this: if you put the computer
through the motions of human behavior, it will in fact mean and intend
what *we* would mean and intend by such behavior. So the AI programmer
should concentrate on abstracting the formal structure of our tasks in the
world without worrying about the inner qualities of consciousness,
feeling, and will with which we invest those tasks. After all, our
subjective illusions notwithstanding, nothing is really "there" in either
man or machine beside formal structure, or syntax. The meaningful, inner
content of our lives is a kind of syntactic epiphenomenon, the mystery of
which need not concern us.
On this premise the hope for true, human-like artificial intelligence now
You may never have heard of the Formalist's Motto, but I venture to
predict that it accurately circumscribes a substantial part of your
thought world, as it does the thought world of nearly everyone in our
culture. For the motto does not apply only to AI. Here, for example, is
what you might call the Physicist's Motto:
If you take care of the equations, their meaningful relation to the
world will take care of itself.
One might wonder about the truth of this at a time when the equations have
become almost mystically esoteric and remote from the world of our
experience. The wondering is justified, but we also need to realize that
the equations succeed remarkably well as shorthand prescriptions for the
effective manipulation of the world (and especially of experimental
apparatus). The problem lies in how easily and dangerously we forget that
manipulating things is not the same as understanding them.
Then there is the Economist's Motto, blossoming from an unshakable faith
in the power of the Invisible Hand to smooth over our own neglect of what
If you take care of the economic numbers, the value for society will
take care of itself.
Or, as Adam Smith originally put it in his *Wealth of Nations* (1776), "By
pursuing his own interest [the individual] frequently promotes that of the
society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it." And
"It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker,
that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.
We address ourselves, not to their humanity, but to their self-love." So
a quantitative concern for the bottom line results automatically in a
wider social good, regardless of one's base intentions.
In this case, not only does the syntax of the formal (market) mechanism
take care of the meaning, it skillfully negates any unsavory meanings that
mere humans try to inject!
One could go on. Probably the most fundamental version of the motto is
that of communications theory, as it has seeped into the popular
If you take care of the transmission of bits, the meaning of the text
will take care of itself.
Nearly all misconceptions about the Information Age trace back to this
formula, including what we might call the Educationist's Motto:
If you take care of the flow of information, the education will take
care of itself.
What's going on here? Clearly we're not just talking about computers or
education or information or business. We're talking about *us*. What is
at issue is the common style of thinking we bring to these various areas.
The most decisive fact about the age of the computer is a fact about our
own minds: we are, without being fully aware of it, leaking meaning and
content at an alarming rate. And what is replacing them? Empty,
computationally manipulable abstractions.
Each of the mottos I have cited directs us toward a mathematical or
logical calculus that can easily be read from, or impressed upon, a
mechanism. We may have begun with meaning -- the meaning of a
proposition, the meaning of a business activity, the meaning of an
animal's behavior -- but we are driven by our predilections toward empty
form without content -- the p's and q's of the logician, the cost analyses
of the financial officer, the DNA structure of the geneticist. For these
can be arranged in a sequence whose logic can drive an automaton.
Our exquisite ability to reduce content to usable abstraction is one of
our rightly prized achievements. But we cannot abstract from the content
of a thing unless we are given the thing in the first place -- given it,
that is, in all its qualitative and meaningful presence. Otherwise there
is simply nothing there. You cannot arrive at the concrete object from
its dimensions alone, you cannot arrive at a product from a set of cost
specifications alone, and you cannot arrive at the organism from its DNA
We are powerfully one-directional in our intentions. We want to abstract
the mathematical law of things, but we do not know how to get the things
back once we have found ourselves holding nothing but a set of pure
abstractions. Once a business becomes a smoothly humming calculator of
the bottom line, its resistance as an complex, integrated, and programmed
*mechanism* to intrusive questions like "What is the good of this
product?" becomes almost impossible to overcome.
The difference between the two directions of movement -- toward
abstraction and toward meaning -- can be painfully hard to grasp amid the
actual affairs of life. It is the difference between a business that uses
economic controls to discipline its pursuit of ends independently judged
to be worthy -- and a business that pursues profit for its own sake,
without regard for the human worth of its products.
It is the difference between a science that began as a passionate
insistence upon observing the actual world instead of relying upon the
subtle cerebrations of the medieval schoolmen -- and a science whose
developing abstractions have encouraged it first to ignore and then (as an
inevitable consequence of the ignoring) to ride roughshod over the natural
It is the difference between an education that enables students to
inquire, "What does this mean?" -- and an education bent upon shoveling
inert facts into cranial "databases."
It's no use talking about the risks of technology without also talking
about our styles of thinking. If computerized technology is pivotal for
the modern era, it's not because of some wholly inherent capacity, but
rather because we have fashioned in the computer a perfectly adapted tool
for the expression of our preferred modes of thought. Toss the machine
without altering the thought, and not much will change. Transform the
thought, on the other hand, and we just *might* be able to wrestle the
machine toward profoundly humane ends.
Unfortunately, there's not much in all this talk about "modes of thought"
that wired folks, including many social activists, care to bother about.
We all too instinctively want a *program* first. Perhaps I do not stretch
the matter too far when I offer the Involved Citizen's Motto:
If you take care of the program of action, its meaning will take care
But it's not true. Actions considered apart from their inner, expressive
gesture degenerate into empty formalisms (like computer-orchestrated
"grassroots" campaigns). Or else they carry meanings we are simply
We have no constructive choice except to consider what we ourselves will
become -- which is another of saying: except to consider whether we will
transcend our currently "executing" syntax in a way that formal mechanisms
never can. The various mottos I have listed, after all, capture a
historical movement of just the past few hundred years. In becoming aware
of that movement, will we disown responsibility for it as if it were an
unalterable given, while at the same time embracing with exhilarated
anticipation the wondrous changes our *machines* are bringing about?
In this way we would forget ourselves precisely at the moment when the
"spirit" of technology is making a nearly irresistible offer: "You can
drop out of the picture and I'll keep all the formal mechanisms humming
along just fine. Don't worry; everything else will take care of itself."
It's a genuine offer -- and one we look too much like accepting.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
These observations will sound, audibly or inaudibly, as the leitmotiv in
much of NETFUTURE's wide-ranging content over the coming year. All of the
suggestions I have offered need filling out. For example, I will try to
show how the hunger for formal, computer-like mechanisms leads both to the
conservative's denial of limitations in laissez-faire capitalism and the
liberal's excessive faith in governmental programs to counter those
limitations. I will also make some suggestions about a third way that
arises only from the free and responsible, socially embedded human being.
Steve Talbott (email@example.com)
O'Reilly & Associates
NETFUTURE editor: http://www.oreilly.com/people/staff/stevet/netfuture/
US Mail: 101 RT 21C, Ghent NY 12075 USA Telephone: 518-672-5103
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