Human Touch

June 12, 1997 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: Essayist Clarence Page of the Chicago Tribune has some thoughts about the differences between humans and computers.

CLARENCE PAGE: We used to call them “electronic brains.” That was back in the 1950′s, when names like ENIAC and Univac were room-sized clunkers with hot tubes, punch cards, and mechanical clacking noises. Computers are much, much smaller and many times smarter now. But we know better than to call them “electronic brains.” Computers don’t really think. They calculate. They manipulate binary digits, one’s and zero’s, like the beads of an abacus, only much faster.

Computers can compete at chess because the board’s options are limited. Program all of the possibilities and you’ve got Deep Blue, a competitor–but not a thinker. When chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov faced off IBM’S Deep Blue, the machine won. That upset a lot of people. Not me. I’m happy to concede the few things a machine can do, if it helps us to appreciate the many things humans can do better–like, for example, making a mess. I’m real good at that. Look at my desk. Some people say a cluttered desk is a sign of a creative mind. People look at my desk and say I must be very creative. But where others see chaos, I see order. Believe it or not, I know where everything is–usually. Order is in the mind of the beholder; so is disorder.

Today’s scientists think about chaos the way Einstein thought about relativity. Chaos was an important theme in the movie “Jurassic Park.” A concept called “chaos theory” predicted the breakdown of order and dinosaurs running amok. In simplest terms, chaos theory tries to appreciate just how much the universe is a vast, disorderly place, where here and there sheer probability has caused disorder to give way to a quite lovely and wondrous order. On at least one lovely planet, our own, it has created the human brain. It is a complex piece of meat chock full of disorderly thoughts that here and there give way to wondrous order.

To information theorists, our brains must look like a jumble of entropy, “noise” and random errors in the transmission of signals and messages out of which an often-lovely order emerges, just as a painting, when viewed close up, looks like so many chaotic brush strokes and squiggles; but when viewed from farther back, it becomes the Mona Lisa, orderly and beautiful, yet still mysterious, a reflection of its creator’s sense of himself. The smartest computer’s talents pale next to Leonardo De Vinci’s genius. This computer is no more aware of what it or what it is doing than a lawn mower is aware of the lawn it’s cutting.

COMPUTER’S VOICE IN SCENE FROM MOVIE 2001: Just what do you think you’re doing, Dave?

CLARENCE PAGE: Thirty years ago the movie 2001 introduced us to an imagined super-computer named HAL.

HAL: (“2001″) I know everything hasn’t been quite right with me.

CLARENCE PAGE: Insiders were amused that each letter of its name–H. A. L.–was a step ahead of “I.B.M. HAL seemed to be a true electronic brain. It could converse with you as it beat you at chess. It could also take control, even take your life without shedding a single electronic shiver of emotion.

HAL: (“2001″) Take a stress pill and think things over.

CLARENCE PAGE: When HAL saw his human controller turning him off, it even seemed to show some self-awareness, a primitive but palpably real survival impulse.

HAL: (“2001″) My mind is going.

CLARENCE PAGE: But, 2001 is almost here, and we’re a long way from a real-life HAL. The cover of Newsweek called Kasparov’s match with Deep Blue, “The Brain’s Last Stand.” No way. Today’s computer, even one as powerful as Deep Blue, is still handicapped by its preoccupation with order. It will compete with human thinkers only when it can match the complexities of our chaotic minds.

Critics say Carry Kasparov lost because he got too emotional; he let himself get psyched out by the way the computer does what it does. I’m glad Kasparov can get emotional. That’s something the new machines can’t do. Not yet.

I’m Clarence Page.