First Night: The Conflict Between Hope and Cynicism
Story by Dr. Lee Brazil
Foreword and Epilogue by:
Written by Ron Breazeale, Ph.D.
All Rights Reserved
Paraway Beach Road
December 16, 2019, 3:49 P.M.
Home was only a few minutes away. It was a beautiful old house set on a rise with a view of the open ocean. But, like the office, it was an old house with always something to repair. They had tried to sell it, however, but with the recession it hadn’t been possible. Liz owned a “camp” inland. They had turned it into a country house over the years. Liz loved it. Her studio was there. She would stay there all the time if she could, but Lee couldn’t or wouldn’t commute three days a week to the office. He was going to quit soon. Completely. And they would rent the house near the ocean if they couldn’t sell it.
Lee decided to take the long way home. He drove to Paraway Beach. He wanted to just look at the North Atlantic for a few minutes. It was four in the afternoon, but the sun was low. It would be dark when he arrived home. Lee switched on the radio. It was on Maine Public Radio. The four o’clock news had just finished and MPR was just beginning a special report on the Supercomputer. Lee focused his attention on the newscast.
“Jim, we’ve been hearing a lot about this Supercomputer that the European union has been working on for the last few years.”
“Yes. But they apparently have run out of money and are turning the final phase of development over to the United States government.”
“And that’s stirred up considerable controversy, hasn’t it?”
“It has, indeed, and Senator Nancy Clayton seems to be at the center of it. Here is an address she made to the Senate in late October regarding S126, a Bill to Develop and Expand Information Technology for the Next Generation.”
Senator Clayton‘s distinct voice sounded. “Let me say first, I’m not against the development of new technologies as many have accused me of being. What I am opposed to is the development of new technology without a clear and reasoned understanding as to its impact on our world. The present bill, as I understand it, would assure the continued development of an ultra-intelligent computer. This ultra-intelligent machine could design even smarter machines and create what I.J. Good, the British mathematician, described as an ‘intelligence explosion,’ leaving the intelligence of man far behind.
“Such a super-intelligent computer would extend our intellectual abilities in the same way that cars and planes have extended our physical abilities. New treatments for disease and the negative effects of old age could be developed. We might even find ways to extend life indefinitely. And the entire universe could be opened to exploration and possible exploitation.”
Lee was remembering the well-known science fiction novelist, Vernor Vinge, who, in the early 1990s, predicted that within thirty years, the human race would have the means to create superhuman intelligence. He predicted shortly after that the “human era” would end. He was referring to the coming technological Singularity. Lee refocused on the Senator’s speech to Congress.
“The word ‘Singularity’ is borrowed from astrophysics and refers to a point in space and time, for example, inside a black hole, where the rules of ordinary physics no longer apply. I would ask what rules will be applied if we choose to develop this ultra-intelligent machine. How will we chart our course? If we apply only the rules of finance and profit, we could be entering a black hole from which our world will never emerge.
“Therefore, I would encourage this body to consider an amendment to the present bill that would create a commission composed of our best minds and hearts to explore the moral implications of the development of this new technology and to provide guidance to those who would create this superintelligent machine. I am submitting such an amendment. I would hope it would be given serious consideration and be acted on favorably by this body.”
The commentator continued. “Jim, I understand that the amendment introduced by Senator Clayton and co-sponsored by a number of senators did not pass.”
“Yes, it was defeated soundly by a vote of 64 to 32. A number of senators openly opposed the amendment saying that there was no money in the budget to fund such a commission, while others opposed it because they felt that the commission, like so many other blue-ribbon commissions, would have no authority to enforce its recommendations.”
“Where do things stand at this point?”
“Well, the Senate bill just recently passed by a vote of 66 to 30. It easily passed in the House and was signed today by the President.”
“So what will happen now?”
“The Commissioner of Education has been charged with issuing a request for proposals to those corporations interested in continuing the development of the computer. The Commissioner is also charged with reviewing the proposals and making a recommendation as to which applicant should be chosen to develop this machine.”
“So things are moving ahead quite rapidly.”
“Yes, they are. A Senate Oversight Committee has been established to review the Commissioner of Education’s recommendation, and Senator Clayton has been appointed to that committee. The committee is expected to act quickly, though, so there will probably be little debate.”
Lee liked what Clayton had to say. “I would bet the old boys in Congress are a little frightened of her.” Lee continued to talk to himself. “This conflict over a super-computer, the development of superhuman technology, is really about the conflict between hope and cynicism.” He sighed. “Would the development of such a machine save us from ourselves or destroy us? Would money and greed determine the outcome?” His voice was becoming louder. “Or will we act,” he said in a sing-song fashion, “with justice and mercy and concern for one another?” The developments of the past few years certainly hadn’t encouraged Lee to think that justice and concern for fellowman would win the conflict.
Lee turned the motor off and rolled down the window. He took a deep breath. The air was cold. The tide was in. He took another deep breath, closed his eyes and focused on the sound of the ocean. Thoughts of melted cars, crop circles, suicidal patients, the CIA, Senator Clayton, and Jennings flashed through his head. He tried to clear his head. He took another deep breath, closed his eyes again, and focused on the sounds of the ocean and the shore, a stray seagull, the surf, a foghorn in the distance. The second time it worked. The tension of the day began to slip into the past.