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layer eight

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Looking back at the above model, something else just occurred to me: the original four- or seven-layer models were formulated for computer communication, but they have clearly-defined limits: past the highest layer of abstraction, the assumption is that further computation and communication tasks are handled by people. How valid will this assumption be in the future?

I haven’t gone any deeper into layer eight, asking just what functions the individual performs, since that could fall into the field of psychology, but one factor stands out to me: the ability to ask questions. We people currently define the problems that we use computers to try to solve, but will there be a time when computers fulfil that layer eight function too? This is a factor in much science fiction, of course, the most obvious negative example I can think of right now being The Terminator and sequels. There, when the “SkyNet” computer network becomes self-aware, it takes that question-asking role away from its human masters and defines “The Problem” in its own terms, with disastrous consequences for humankind.

In Dial F for Frankenstein (abridged version here), first published in 1965, Arthur C Clarke toyed with the idea of the world’s phone and network systems forming a self-aware network consciousness, not one with malevolent intent, but one no less dangerous for all that. The idea of a global computer network was hardly new – an obvious application for Clarke’s geosynchronous satellite system – but it’s spooky to see just how comfortable he was with the idea, years before the first Arpanet experiments.

Clarke excelled in framing mind-boggling concepts in down-to-earth ways: in this story, twelve hours after all the phones in the world ring for no reason, and the computer networks go berserk, a group of tired Post Office engineers head for lunch in a greasy spoon cafe, to try to puzzle out what is happening, while the world’s technology falls apart around them. One even hits on the idea of a newly-formed network consciousness, to the scepticism of the others:

‘No-one answered the question I had asked before Jim came in,’ complained Reyner. ‘What would this supermind actually do? Would it be friendly – hostile – indifferent? Would it even know that we exist? Or would it consider the electronic signals it’s handling to be the only reality?’

‘I see you’re beginning to believe me,’ said Williams, with a certain grim satisfaction. ‘I can only answer your question by asking another. What does a newborn baby do? It starts looking for food.’ He glanced up at the flickering lights. ‘My God,’ he said slowly, as if a thought had just struck him. ‘There’s only one food it would need: electricity.’

‘This nonsense has gone far enough,’ said Smith. ‘What the devil’s happened to our lunch? We gave our orders twenty minutes ago.’

Everyone ignored him.

‘And then,’ said Reyner, taking up where Williams had left off, ‘it would start looking around, and stretching its limbs. In fact, it would start to play, like any growing baby.’

‘And babies break things,’ said someone softly.

Clarke’s stories rarely have clichéd happy endings.

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Written by brian t

June 13, 2004 at 2:55 pm

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