As Jimmy Carter used to do, I consult my daughter Yasmin on many an issue of great and deep importance. The subject this weekend was why computers crash, have bugs, and all that sort of stuff. I made a bold statement because I wanted to see where we could take it. I said “they have problems because they have no sense of identity“.
A while ago, she raised the question “Who is the 'I' that says 'I'“. We've gone into philosophical and religious discussions based on this very topic. Today, she basically said, “that's a lot of difficulty caused by a single letter“, and then she went back to reading “Dragon Singer“, which isn't about a singing dragon at all.
At any rate, we went on about our day, and on the way over to Krispy Kreme, we broached the subject again, “why don't computers always work?“ This time, I had an even better angle. I said the following.
“This car is transporting us to Krispy Kreme. Without using the words “I“, “We“, or “Us“, can you describe why this is happening?“. She struggled mightily, figuring, refiguring, recasting, and in the end came up with “it's too hard“. I thought to myself “just like when the WHOPPER figured out that there was no good end in thermonuclear war“. That was just the hook I needed. I said, computer programs are like us in the car without identity. The car is like the computer itself. Or visa versa. It's doing whatever it's doing, no matter what. I said, if the car suddenly veered off course, and went off the side of the road, we wouldn't care, and the car would do nothing to correct its course. We're just along for the ride. Without identity, we can't say things like “NO!! We want to go to Krispy Kreme!!“, and recorrect the errant path. There's no “We“ to express such a thought, and the car has no real will of its own. It's only because I have strong desires to get to the donut place that I will make corrections to the car along the way, accounting for adversities of all sorts as they come up. I am adaptable, and I have desire.
Similarly, I said, there's no sense of identity in the computing system, so when a virus comes along and messes with the program, the computer happily continues to execute the infected program because it has no sense or desire to do anything else, because it has no identity of its own. It's just going wherever the code takes it.
To go further, I described the current state of computing as working very hard to make the car more reliable. Random acts are less likely to take us off course. A popped tire is unlikely. An overheated radiator, a tweaked steering system. But, a random asteroid, or drunk driver can always hit us, and since we're merely passengers, we're not going to do too much to correct our course, because we have no desire other than to ride along with wherever the car is going to take us.
We then worked out that it would be nice to put some amount of knowledge/mind into the machine such that it can make some basic decisions. That's when we stumbled on the word “epistemology“. How do you remember such a word? Well, I said “epi“ can be remembered because it's at the center of things, like “epicenter“ of an earthquake. Then there's stem, which is the center of a plant. Then, ology is easy because she already knows things like biology as being the study of something. So, now Yasmin knows the word epistemology as the study of things that are at the center. Good enough, we'll get to the theory of thinking and knowledge soon enough.
Having planted this seed, I'm assuming that Yasmin will come up with the method and aparatus for infusing machines with a mind. Perhaps we'll follow Freud and create an Id, Ego, and Superego system. Who knows. All I know is that in the past (when she was 4) when she was asking the questions like “why is the sky blue, why does the moon appear larger when it's low in the sky“, and the like, I had to turn to the “Handy Physics Answer Book“. I figure by turning these problems over to her early, we'll get a generational head start on solving them.
Well, we got our donuts, we headed home, and Yasmin finished the “Dragon Singer“ for the fifth time before turning in. I'm glad she's on my side, and I hope the pity she feels for the poor dumb computers leads her to answering the “who am I?“ question for them.