“Yes, yes,” replied the young software engineer, whose glass was already three-quarters empty, “that detail. But in theory we can create minds like ours, beings with free will–”
“Theory,” the doctor cut in, “is often more fantasy than fact.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“The problem grows exponentially.” The doctor’s voice, perhaps out of malice, had assumed that dry lecturing tone he knew his students hated. “It is comparatively easy, yes, to create an evolving intelligence on a computer in my lab. However, with each evolutionary step — each mental advance — the program becomes vastly more complex, until it would take even a supercomputer a hundred years to model one second of thought. Ashton’s rule states–”
“I know Ashton’s rule.” The young man hid his impatience badly. “Computing power advances, though. In China they are building quantum processors as we speak.”
The doctor smiled kindly. “Are they? My dear fellow, God himself would have to set an upper limit on our intelligence if he wanted to recreate humanity in computer code.”
“In your book,” began the young man, his lips tight–
“My book was written by a young fool!” thundered the doctor. He glowered a moment, then offered up a tired sigh. “Since then I have learned humility.”
He remembered his simulated organisms, moving and learning, spawning new hierarchies of algorithms each hour. One by one they had failed: either hitting evolutionary dead-ends or becoming too complex and freezing in place. He remembered his room of computers, grinding away hopelessly at the problem of consciousness. At the time he had seen it as a temporary problem, but as the years passed fruitlessly he had come to see it as a limitation built into the shape of the universe — or a curse, meant for him alone, to punish his daring. The thought of how close he had come to true human-level artificial intelligence was even now a weight around his neck.
The young man opened his mouth and closed it without speaking.
“No,” the doctor said, with real kindness this time. “Put away your dreams of making minds, son. In a hundred years, when computers can handle my current programs, we will ourselves have advanced far enough that they will barely constitute intelligence by our standards. I’m afraid there will always be a chasm between us and our creations.”
The young man was a little taken aback by the turn the doctor’s talk had taken. He spoke artlessly, and we ought to forgive him for what he said next:
“But sir, isn’t it possible that our programs might devise more efficient programs, and in turn–”
The doctor heard no more than this. That old idea, that computers might build faster computers which would then build a still faster generation and so on, burned again in his mind. Only it had undergone a strange reversal: he imagined computers building smaller computers, who imagined themselves gods and built little minds of their own. What separates us from the gods, he thought, is processing power, and with a sudden flash of computation he understood, he saw it, he had figured it out–
“Doctor! Doctor Lohmann!” The young man shook the doctor by the shoulder, kneeling on the carpet beside him. His glass of sherry was making a sticky puddle on the carpet. A stroke, the young man thought, and fumbled for his phone. Meanwhile the doctor lay there, his muscles locked into stillness, the gleam of an idea frozen in his eye. *
About the Author: Sean Goedecke is a writer and amateur philosopher. He writes non-fiction for WeekendNotes and fiction for anywhere that will have him.
About the Artist: Romeo Esparrago is an artist.