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special branch

Some more on Stefan Themerson, whose 'Special Branch' - out of print these days - offers another great example of his unique style of mental gymnastics. Subtitled 'A Dialogue', the book consists of a philosophical discussion between a detective superintendent ("special branch") named Watson, and the narrator, who is consulted as an expert on a question of artificial intelligence.

"We are investigating the case of Dr. Good's Ultra-Intelligent Machine. It occurred to us that, in order to be Ultra-intelligent, the machine may need to acquire some new, unknown to us, concepts. We are trying to find out where she, the machine, I mean, should look for them, in order to find them."

It sounds like a thought experiment from Douglas Hofstadter's 'Gödel, Escher, Bach' (1979), which came out seven years after 'Special Branch' (1972). But whereas Hofstadter was interested in the nature of intelligence and consciousness, Themerson takes the Ultra-Intelligent Machine as a starting point for a playful exploration of his favorite themes of language and ethics. Where, to put it simply, language is about our mental interpretation of the world, and ethics how we act on our interpretations.

For example, to define the building blocks of the Machine's thought processes, they investigate the relationship of language to the signs and symbols of science.

"And who do you think uses that sort of words?"
"Well," he said, "Some of them are used by natural philosophers, others, well if I may call philosophers so, by unnatural ones."
"That is finely put, superintendent," I said. "Natural and Unnatural philosophers! Ha! But tell me this: Where do they actually find the words they use?"
"Where indeed!" he repeated. "You have asked a question that is not easily answerable."
"Well," I said, "is it not true that we come across the same words in Homer and other poets?"
"O," he exclaimed. "Poets! Well, yes and no."
"How do you mean, yes and no?"
"Well, sire, when these words are used by poets, they are words. But when they are used by philosophers, they become terms."
"Precisely," I said.
"And words-as-words and words-as-terms are not the same thing."
"No, they are not."
"Words-as-words are winged; words-as-terms are tethered," he concluded.
"The first statement is a quotation from Homer," I said. "Where does the second come from?"
Detective superintendent blushed a little and confessed:
"The second is my own. Though inspired by Plato."

This theme of tethered words returns later on, when they discuss how to ensure the Machine will be capable of having new interpretations, in order to acquire new concepts.

"How marvellous," he exclaimed. "And how I envy you."
"Why?!" he repeated. "It's obvious, isn't it. Not having read Plato first you were free, your mind was free to learn things through happenings and not through words. A beautiful, free, open mind, ready to accept naive reality as it comes, and in it finding the bricks and marble with which to build its mental parthenons and slums. No, there is no need to laugh. I know what I'm talking about, because I was forced to read Plato first, and my mind got filled with the white plastic balloons of his preconceived Ideas. I had to prick them, later on, one balloon after another, to make room for new notions, which would fit the picture of the world as we go through it, and chart it today, and each act of pricking a balloon was an agonizing tragedy."

Soon, however, the question of the Ultra-Intelligent Machine is narrowed down to the problem of how to provide her with a Moral Nature. (In fact, the name of the Machine's inventor, Dr. Good, already betrays Themerson's preoccupation with this theme.)

"All right," he said. "We shan't give her Love. Either Love or Good Intentions. What's next? Is there anything we can give her? Instead?"
"Yes, there is."
"Name it."
"Knowledge," I said, and, feeling somewhat uncomfortable, I giggled.
"Knowledge of what?"
"Knowledge of how things are."
"You mean: Knowledge of how things are will make her morally responsible?"
"Are you mad?"
"No. Wasn't it on the day we ate of the tree of knowledge that our eyes opened and we became as gods, knowing good and evil, – or hasn't your reading of Genesis managed to go as far as Chapter III?"

At this point, Watson and the narrator have already discussed the idea of correcting Genesis by replacing "the words 'God created' by the words 'man discerned.'" Thus Genesis starts with man, who "discerned the heavens and the earth", and after eating of the tree of knowledge becomes "as gods". This humanist metaphor of "as gods" might sum up Themerson's concern with man's moral responsibility – which becomes all the greater when he starts inventing Ultra-Intelligent Machines.

Update: Here's the book cover, a bit battered but a classic design by Joost Swarte. The book was published by Gaberbocchus Press, founded by Themerson and his wife Franciszka to print their books.

Stefan Themerson - Special Branch

the mystery of the sardine

'You see,' he said very quietly, 'a perfect system can never be perfect. A system has to be imperfect to be perfect. A little corruption, a little bribery, a little hypocrisy, a little string-pulling, a little blackmail are good things. T… Read the full post »

two comments

Do they succeed in making the ultra intelligent machine in the end? End when it works, what will it do exactly...?

jorrit , 05-07-’10 09:52

Ah, I'd better not spoil the ending - Themerson is enough of a detective writer to provide a nice unexpected twist at the very end!

The purpose of the Ultra-Intelligent Machine, though, is to be the last invention mankind will ever have to make. After that, armed with those new concepts, the Machine will take over and solve all our problems...

bv (URL), 09-07-’10 22:42

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