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  •                                  NETFUTURE
                        Technology and Human Responsibility
    Issue #139                                                December 3, 2002
                     A Publication of The Nature Institute
              Editor:  Stephen L. Talbott (stevet@netfuture.org)
                      On the Web: http://www.netfuture.org/
         You may redistribute this newsletter for noncommercial purposes.
    Can we take responsibility for technology, or must we sleepwalk
    in submission to its inevitabilities?  NetFuture is a voice for
    responsibility.  It depends on the generosity of those who support
    its goals.  To make a contribution, click here.
    Editor's Note
    Disconnect? (Kevin Kelly and Stephen L. Talbott)
       Of software porting, the third eye, and C3PO
       Steve, Please Go Back to Being Who You Were (Jon Alexander)
    About this newsletter
                                  EDITOR'S NOTE
    For reasons you will recognize as you read this issue, publishing it does
    not exactly give me a sense of great success.
    Meanwhile, however, three items of interest:
    ** We've posted to our website a wonderful paper by The Nature Institute's
       affiliate researcher, philosopher Ron Brady.  It's entitled
       "Perception: Connections Between Art and Science", and deals with the
       human contribution to the perceptual world -- a contribution occurring
       at a much more fundamental level than is usually acknowledged.  You'll
       find this paper at
    ** A while back I received a large and weighty package in the mail with
       "Kevin Kelly" as the return address.  I eagerly opened it and found
       myself the recipient of a complimentary copy of Kevin's new book,
       Asia Grace.  It's quite a remarkable book, full of glorious
       photographs Kevin took when, as a college-aged kid, he traveled through
       Asia.  Apart from enabling you to marvel at the world's record for
       pounds of book per words of text (can't be far from one pound per
       word), the volume will give you many hours of lush enjoyment.  You can
       preview and purchase the book at www.asiagrace.com.
    ** If you didn't see my previous warning, please correct all links to
       NetFuture pages.  The part of your url reading like either of these:
       should now read:
       The old links (of which many remain) are now out of date, and before
       long will be "Not Found".
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                        Kevin Kelly and Stephen L. Talbott
                         (kk@kk.org; stevet@netfuture.org)
    This exchange is part of an ongoing dialogue about machines and organisms.
    For the previous installment see NetFuture #136.
    STEPHEN L. TALBOTT:  In the last installment of our dialogue (NF #136) you
    asked, "What would you need as fully convincing evidence that machines and
    organisms are truly becoming one?"
    You will recall that earlier (in NF #133) I pointed out what seems to me a
    crucial distinction between mechanisms and organisms:  the functional idea
    of the mechanism is imposed from without (by us) and involves an
    arrangement of basic parts that are not themselves penetrated and
    transformed by this idea.  In the organism, by contrast, the idea (or, if
    you prefer, the archetype, or being, or entelechy) works from within; it
    is not a matter of fixed parts being arranged, but of each individual part
    coming into existence (as this particular part with its own particular
    character) only as an expression of the idea of the whole.
    I illustrated this organic wholeness by describing how we read the
    successive words of a text.  Almost with the first word we begin
    apprehending the governing idea of the larger passage, which comes into
    progressive focus as we proceed.  And this idea shines through and
    transforms every individual word.  Dictionary definitions alone would make
    a joke of any profound text; each word becomes what it is, with all its
    qualities and connotations, only by virtue of its participation in the
    meaning of the whole, only as it is infused by the whole.
    Our atomistic habits of thought, of course, run counter to this
    description.  We can scarcely imagine a whole except as something "built
    up from" individual parts with their own self-contained character.  But
    the fact is that we could never write a meaningful text, and could never
    understand such a text, if the words were not caught up into a preceding
    whole that transformed them into expressions of itself.
    When Craig Holdrege, in his study of the sloth (NF #97), said that every
    detail of the animal speaks "sloth", he was pointing to the same truth.
    The fine sculpting of every bone, the character of basic physiological
    processes, the smallest behavioral gesture -- all these are "shone
    through" by the coherent and distinctive qualities that we can recognize
    as belonging to the sloth.
    So, Kevin, when you ask what would convince me that machines are becoming
    organisms, certainly one prerequisite is that I would have to see that the
    foregoing distinction is without basis in reality.  I would have to see
    that its own idea is native to the mechanism and governs the mechanism in
    the way the idea of the organism governs and shapes the organism from
    within, bringing the parts into existence as expressions of itself -- or
    else that organisms fail to show this sort of relation between part
    and whole.
    Now, I realize that in NF #133 your initial response to my distinction was
    to deny it.  It seemed obvious to you that I was thinking of "old"
    technology -- industrial-age machines -- and not things like cellular
    automatons, neural nets, artificially intelligent robots, and all sorts of
    other technologies that show complexly interacting elements.  I remain
    hopeful, however, that your response was more a function of my brief and
    inadequate effort to capture the distinction than a real disagreement.
    With that hope in mind, let me explain why your counterexamples don't work
    for me.  Think first of a computer.  The hardware can be implemented in
    radically different materials with radically different designs.  (You're
    doubtless aware of all the ways people have imagined constructing a
    Universal Turing Machine.)  Then there is the programming, or software,
    which defines the functional idea of the computer.  Does this program work
    in the computer in the same way the idea of the organism works in the
    Clearly not.  You could remove the software from one computer and install
    what is essentially the same software in a wholly different computer.
    Conversely, having removed the software from the first machine, you can
    load a second program into it.  In the former case, you have the same
    functional idea driving two computers that may be unrecognizably different
    in materials and design.  In the latter case you have two completely
    different functional ideas successively driving the same computer.  This
    arbitrary relation between the programmatic idea and its hardware
    embodiment is something you will never find in the psychosomatic unity of
    an organism.  (Try putting the mind of a horse into the body of a pig!)
    The relevance to my larger point is this.  If there is no horse/pig
    problem with computers, it's because the software coordinates the pre-
    existing elements of the hardware rather than enlivening them and bringing
    them into being; and the different programs are therefore free to
    coordinate the elements in different ways.  These elements are not
    themselves transformed by the program from within, in the manner of words
    in a text, or bones, muscle fibers and cells in a developing organism.
    Nor is the program continually embodying itself in new, previously non-
    existent forms of hardware as it "matures".  (If you think genetic
    algorithms contradict this, then we need to talk about them.)
    Does this capture the distinction I'm after a little better?
    One other thing.  I get the feeling that you half expect me, upon
    reviewing all the achievements in robotics and AI, to be stunned by the
    sheer evidential weight in favor of the increasingly organic and life-like
    character of mechanisms.  Rest assured:  I am impressed -- sometimes even
    stunned -- by these achievements.  They reinforce my conviction that there
    is no ultimate bound upon human creative potentials, and these certainly
    include the possibility of housing our ever more sophisticated and subtle
    ideas in mechanisms.  I see no end to this process, no limit to how life-
    like our devices can become or how fully they will insert themselves into
    the warp and woof of our lives.
    This, in fact, is why I'm convinced that the decisive trial humanity must
    now endure has to do with whether we can hold on to our own fullest
    capacities so as to remain masters of our machines.  If we fail the test,
    we will find that we can no longer differentiate ourselves from our
    creations.  But this will not mean that machines have become organisms.
    It will mean, rather, that we have continued to lose our ability to
    distinguish the organism's act of creation from its products and therefore
    have abdicated the very selfhood that is one with our creative powers.  We
    will have succumbed to the downward pull of our machines, becoming like
    So what you and I are discussing is not at all a merely academic question!
    I am grateful to you for your tenacity in demanding clarity from me in my
    explanations.  I trust you will not relent.
    KEVIN KELLY:  OK, so let's put your criteria to a test.  We'll take a few
    organisms (a sparrow, a reindeer lichen, and a diatom) pull them apart,
    and ask some experts if they can identify the organism -- if they can see
    the whole organism -- in the parts.  And let's do the same with some
    technology (a 747 plane, a book, and a watch).  We'll take them apart and
    ask some experts if they can identify the technological species -- if they
    can see the whole thing -- from the parts.  My guess is that the two teams
    would have roughly the same degree of success, on average.
    Would you agree that if they did have the same degree of success that this
    would (as you seem to suggest) convince you that machines and organisms
    are becoming one?
       > You could remove the software from one computer and install what
       > is essentially the same software in a wholly different computer.
    Man, are you wrong about this.  Have you ever tried this?  Have you ever
    spoken to anyone who has tried to port software for one computer onto a
    wholly different computer?  They would universally tell you that it was
    like "putting the mind of a horse into the body of a pig!"  There is
    profound universality in computation (see my December Wired article) but
    what this does not mean is that any particular implementation of it can be
    moved to another matrix.  It simply never happens in practice.  Because:
    machines are just like organisms.
       > If there is no horse/pig problem with computers....
    But there is a horse/pig problem, and this problems stems from the
    commonality of machines and organisms as complex, dynamic systems in
       > One other thing .... I see no end to this process, no limit to how
       > life-like our devices can become or how fully they will insert
       > themselves into the warp and woof of our lives.
    Now I am totally confused.  This is what I have been saying.
    So let me see if I have this right.  You say that there is no limit to how
    life-like our devices can become.  You admit that we'll add ever more
    life-like functionality to our machines, that there is no limit to what
    lessons we can extract from biology to import into machines, until
    (without limit) we are able to grow and evolve them.  But while these
    machine organisms will be used everywhere, and we'll depend on them the
    way we depend upon organisms, and while these things look like organisms,
    behave like organisms, and are used like organisms, in fact they aren't
    organisms at all because they lack an unlocatable trait, a spark, a vital
    something that we can't measure, can't pinpoint, and have trouble
    perceiving over time because our third eye which can detect this spark of
    real life is dimming.  So while we will be surrounded by vast quantities
    and varieties of technology that will appear life-like to all who look and
    in any way we measure, this lifeness will be an illusion because in fact
    these things will lack an inner, unmeasurable quality that we -- ooops --
    can no longer see.  That is why when a scientist says, I see no difference
    between this man-made being and an organism, the proper response is:  that
    is because you have lost Ulysses's vision.  The improper exfoliation of
    life-likeness in machines has blinded your ancient sight. And if you can't
    see the true inner life of life, than it must be because (aiyeee!) you
    have turned into a machine.  True life recognizes true life; fake life
    only recognizes fake life.  Blessed are those with true life.
    Is this right?
    ST:  Well, it must at least be right as a statement of how you have read
    my words -- which has me very, very disappointed.  It is you, after all,
    and not I who say machines "grow" and "evolve" when in fact everyone knows
    we manufacture them.  And it is you who speak of an unlocatable vital
    essence, when my entire effort has been to describe for you what numerous
    people over the past few centuries (who have bothered to think about the
    matter) have been able to recognize in organisms, wholes, parts, and
    Please, please, Kevin, hold in your mind both aspects of my reiterated
    claim:  (1) we can abstract a certain formal structure from our own
    intelligent activity and impress something of this structure upon
    mechanical devices; and (2) this impressing of ideas from without is
    identifiably different from the living idea that organizes and constitutes
    matter from within -- a difference recognizable in the relation between
    whole and part.
    Every thermostat, every printed page, every complex, electromechanical
    loom or harvesting machine, every silicon chip testifies to our wonderful
    ability to engrave something of the structure of our intelligence upon the
    stuff of the world.  (Do you think all these are alive, more or less?  If
    not, why?)  It would be insane for me to say there is some limit to this
    process -- to say that at some particular point we will no longer be able
    to take a next step.
    But saying there is no limit to the structure we can imprint upon physical
    materials is not the same as saying these materials must be alive.  I'm
    frustrated that you keep trying to get me to infer life from complex
    structure without giving me any reason for doing so apart from, "Gee, look
    at this amazing spectrum of contraptions out there -- some of them sure
    seem alive!"  Well, so do mechanical dolls and Aibos to some
    people.  Is that supposed to be the convincing point?  Or could it be that
    we actually need to think about it a little, even if this strikes you as
    miserably "philosophical"?
    As far as I can see, the idea of an unlocatable spark serves no role in
    this conversation except to enable you to avoid discussing in its own
    terms the actual distinction I've been making between organic wholeness
    and mechanism.
    As for asking a group of experts to pull a sparrow and airplane apart, the
    issue was whether there's a different sort of relation between whole and
    part in the two cases.  Are you really wanting to decide this by a
    democratic vote of experts rather than through your own attempt to grasp
    the substance of the matter?  And are you serious in suggesting such a
    gruesome test for your experts?  Surely you realize that to pull the bird
    apart is to destroy the very thing you're looking for!  "We murder to
    Your suggestion is the quintessential expression of the historical
    development I mentioned earlier, whereby we have learned to ignore the
    very aspects of the world that would have helped us to understand the
    organism.  No wonder our culture must largely say to those who would point
    to the organism, "I look, but I don't see".  The only looking we practice
    is a murderous looking.  You can, if you wish, ridicule the attempt to
    rise above such practice as a quest for "ancient sight", but the fact is
    that whoever has not yet learned to transcend the limitations of his own
    culture remains a prisoner of this culture -- a point I thought you agreed
    All this reminds me of the twentieth-century behaviorists, who dominated
    academia with their denial of mind.  They kept proclaiming, "We don't see
    it" while steadfastly refusing the only possible way of looking for it,
    which was to attend to their own act of looking.  If the matter had been
    decided by a vote of the experts in 1950, the cognitivist revolution
    leading to the kind of computational stance you are now assuming would
    never have happened.
    Actually, Kevin, I suspect you could be one of the new revolutionaries we
    need today, because I'm sure you yourself have an instinctive feel for the
    truth of the matter.  Having witnessed the 747 being pulled apart, you
    would not consider it outlandish if the plane were to be reassembled and
    made to fly again.  It's just a matter of putting the parts back into the
    right relationship with each other.  But if you watched the sparrow being
    reassembled from its parts, you would not expect it to fly.  What's taken
    flight is the inner being that enlivened it and made it an organic unity.
    Remember the Star Wars robot, C3PO, lying dismembered on a table?  I'm
    sure you complained of no deus ex machina when it was remanufactured; but
    you ought to have complained if those were human parts on the table and
    they were successfully "remanufactured".
    There's a closely related point where I'm sure you also have sound
    instincts.  An orthopedic surgeon manipulating your arm to discover a
    "mechanical" defect regards the arm in a manner completely different from
    when she is attending to its meaningful gestures.  Likewise, the doctor
    examining your eyeball will step back in order to regard you when
    it is time to report the results of her observation.  Your eye, face, and
    arm are now taken as the unified outer expression of a whole -- an
    expression of your inner being -- where before they were viewed (perhaps
    to the detriment of your health) as the isolated parts of a mere
    mechanical exterior.  The two ways of looking couldn't present a starker
    contrast.  You would in fact rebel if the doctor continued unrelentingly
    to objectify you.  You tolerate it only as long as you think there's a
    legitimate reason for the more external and mechanical approach, and you
    recognize a difference between the two approaches.
    I know; you don't need to say it:  "Some people now look into the eyes of
    robots the way they look into the eyes of their friends".  Of course they
    do.  Already in the 1970s there were those who projected a living
    psychiatrist into Joseph Weizenbaum's ELIZA program.  This is what I meant
    about losing our ability to distinguish between organisms and machines.
    But in the face of disappearing capacities, are we obligated to go with
    the flow?  Even if there were only one remaining person on earth who could
    see colors, should he deny his color because of the prevailing blindness?
    But I'm quite sure that at some level everyone (including you) still
    recognizes the difference between a machine and an organism.
    As for porting software between computers:  yes, I'm aware of the need for
    machine-level code.  How else could the software "coordinate the elements
    of the hardware" in the external way I described?  But this scarcely
    alters my point:  you can take a massively complex program with its own
    distinctive character (say, a connectionist AI program rather than an
    expert system or "central command and control" program) and you can port
    this program, with its distinctiveness largely intact, to utterly
    different pieces of hardware.
    Also, you ignored the other half of my example:  not only can you port the
    same type of software to many different machines, but you can also drive
    the same machine with many different software packages.  C3PO could have
    been remanufactured with an entirely new "personality" -- or, for that
    matter, with some of the character of a donkey.  So I say again:
       This arbitrary relation between the programmatic idea and its hardware
       embodiment is something you will never find in the psychosomatic unity
       of an organism.  (Try putting the mind of a horse into a pig's body!)
    Finally, a look ahead.  We've been dealing very generally with the
    relation between organisms and mechanisms.  We might obtain more traction
    by specifically considering the human being.  Here is where the living
    idea (or being or entelechy, if you prefer) of the organism lights up in a
    bright, centered focus of self-consciousness.  In this self-consciousness
    we certainly have no obscure trait requiring your "third eye" to perceive.
    Rather, we have what is most immediate and undeniable, what is as close to
    us as our most intimate selves -- the inescapable starting point for
    anything we could possibly build or even hypothesize.
    The problem of consciousness is a crucial stumbling block for the AI
    project.  This is because intelligence as inner activity (as
    opposed to the various outward results that always presuppose the
    activity) is inseparable from consciousness, and we have no reason to
    think we can endow any current or conceivable machine with consciousness.
    KK:  In the end, Steve, we are just going to have to agree to disagree.  I
    feel our conversation is circling back to itself, without covering any new
    ground at this point.  Whatever evidence you supply that we can't ever
    make living machines (or minds) I reject as shortsighted, and whatever
    evidence I supply that this is possible you reject as irrelevant.
    At this point, I think we should let the question lie.  It will be proven
    one way or the other in time.  Unfortunately for me, I don't expect
    artificial consciousness in my lifetime.
    So for the moment (my lifetime) I will have to agree with you.  So I'll
    state that we can tell the difference between machines and organisms now.
    But what this means is that if by some weird breakthrough, nerds
    were able to make in my lifetime a machine that 90% of humans thought was
    conscious, or an artificial being that 90% of humans thought was alive,
    then I will be pleasantly surprised, and you ... you would be what?  In
    the 10% group who said it was all an illusion, or who said it didn't
    really matter, or who suspected a hoax?  I'm not sure. I suspect you would
    try to define the label away, since what we call it is a matter of words
    and definitions anyway.  (The history of artificial life and mind is a
    history of redefining life and mind.)
    But I am not saying this to try to convince you, because I have just
    agreed that I can't do that, and that for the sake of this argument I
    agree with you within my lifetime.  I am only pointing out that you being
    right doesn't change much, but if I am right, then it changes almost
    everything.  Now, one could say the same thing about discovering an ET
    intelligence:  however the fact that it would be momentous does not mean
    that it is probable or likely.  But few would say encountering an alien
    was impossible (on any timescale), which is what I think I hear you say
    about AI and A-life.  (Part of what I am suggesting is that we will
    encounter an alien being on this planet -- one that we make ourselves.)  I
    mention this asymmetry only to indicate that when there is such a high-
    impact it will pay to monitor it closely.
    So I think I'd like to end my part in this conversation about the
    relationship between machines and life with this suggestion.  I will
    continue to rehearse in my mind the possibility that the demarcation
    between the made and the born remains forever (not so hard for me because
    I don't expect it to vanish completely in my lifetime); at the same time
    you might try rehearsing what life (and your life and philosophy) would be
    like if the border disappeared forever.
    That's not a challenge, only a genuine suggestion for contemplation.  In
    the meantime, perhaps another topic will come along that can engage us and
    move our understanding forward.
    ST:  So be it, Kevin, although this saddens me.
    I will round out my own contribution to this discussion by answering your
    question about what my response would be if ninety percent of my fellows
    took a robot to be alive.  The obvious and inescapable answer: it would
    depend on my understanding of robots and living things.  To the extent I
    had some understanding, opinion polls would be irrelevant.
    It's true that "anything might happen" is an appropriate expectation
    whenever we lack all insight.  (A dragon might swallow the sun; a pot of
    tepid water might spontaneously boil over.)  But the whole point of
    science is to gain enough understanding of the essential principles of a
    situation, however subtle they may be, so that we are no longer reduced to
    saying "anything might happen".
    In this regard, I've been puzzled by your preference for a kind of gut-
    feeling populism, in which you are fortified by your subculture's common
    hope that tomorrow anyone might walk through the door, including a living
    robot.  Maybe the hope is justified, or maybe not, but the only way to get
    a firmer grip on the situation is to deepen our understanding of living
    beings and mechanisms.  To say "let's just keep building these things and
    see what happens" does little good if we fail to understand what we have
    built.  We merely "discover" what we expected to find all along.
    There are, after all, ways to pursue the key issues.  The huge mechanist-
    vitalist controversy focused on questions not unlike those you and I have
    been discussing -- and, within mainstream science at least, the mechanists
    came away confident that they had vanquished the vitalists for good.
    (What's needed, I think, is to revisit that debate without the Cartesian
    assumptions by which both sides were bound.)
    All this may help you see why I'm uncomfortable with your repeated
    suggestion that anyone who attempts to discuss the issues in substantive
    terms must be engaging in mere empty play with definitions.  He may, of
    course, but the charge needs to be demonstrated, not used as a catch-all
    means of dismissal.
    In any case, Kevin, I do want to say that I've benefited a great deal from
    our vigorous interactions, and I thank you for your willingness to
    participate.  It's been bracing -- and, for me, humbling at times.  I've
    learned, among other things, how easily my most deeply felt words can
    prove merely obscure to an extremely intelligent reader.  I've often had
    the feeling, "Well, Steve, you sure blew that one.  Back to the drawing
    But, on a happier note, I'd like to issue you a standing invitation:  if
    you wish to respond to anything I've just now said -- or anything I say in
    the future -- the pages of NetFuture will be open to you.
    Goto table of contents
    Steve, Please Go Back to Being Who You Were
    From:  Jon Alexander (drjona@yahoo.com)
    Dear Steve,
    I've read your publication only occasionally over the past few years.
    This has given me perhaps some of the sort of insight that one gets when
    visiting a relative who does not appear nearly as well as on the last
    You began with a very sensitive, nuanced exploration.  You now have all of
    the invective and rhetorical point making and position defending of a true
    believer in an entrenched ideological position.
    I find this development sad.  You were stardust, you were golden, you
    began with such great promise.  Please go back to re-read some of those
    early pieces -- and try to find your way back to the garden.
    Best wishes,
    Dr. Jon Alexander, Associate Professor, Political Science & International
    Affairs, and immediate past President, International Sociological Assoc.,
    Research Committee #26: Sociotechnics -- Sociological Practice." Carleton
    University, 1125 Col. By Dr., Ottawa, Canada, K1S5B6 613-520-2797
    Jon --
    Actually, my own experience of the matter is that I am more nuanced,
    gentler, more open, and more useful to readers than I was in my earlier,
    "angrier" years.  (Not that I'm unwilling to call nonsense "nonsense" --
    as in the "Mindlessness and the Brain" piece in NF #138, which I assume
    triggered your response.)  Odd how we could have such utterly different
    perceptions of the matter!  Could it be (I don't pretend to know) that as
    you have progressively discovered the underlying convictions from which
    those earlier writings arose, you have simply found these convictions not
    to your liking?  Are you mistaking your discomfort over a point of view
    for narrowness on the part of the one who presents that point of view?
    Are you disliking the very fact that a person can have a well-defined
    point of view?
    Only you can answer.  But since your brief note, serving only a negative
    function, provided little guidance as to my actual offenses, I thought it
    not unfair to respond to your severe observation with some equally severe
    questions.  I trust that both of us have only the best of intentions.  And
    that both of us can benefit from the self-reflection this sort of an
    exchange seems to call for.
    Goto table of contents
                              ABOUT THIS NEWSLETTER
    Copyright 2002 by The Nature Institute.  You may redistribute this
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    Steve Talbott :: NetFuture #139 :: December 3, 2002
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