Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Computer Knows All

One of my childhood fantasies involved a computer that was capable of answering any question. This was in the early 80s, when personal computers were becoming common, but before my family owned one. This fantastical idea was perhaps influenced by old popular notions about computers that still had some currency at that time, having been expressed, for example, in science fiction movies like The Invisible Boy (see picture). However, with the currently popular (but false) belief that "everything" is on the Internet, and with Google's stated goal of "organizing the world's information", it is worth asking this question: Could computers (or the worldwide network of computers known as the Internet, or an Internet search engine, etc.) ever actually become capable of answering any question?

This is ultimately a question for the philosophers more than it is one that is solvable by the computer technicians. For it essentially boils down to deeper questions about knowledge and truth.

Let's first consider this: If a computer can answer a question, it must "know", or at least be able to figure out or find out, the answer. How does a computer know something?

A computer's body of knowledge exists in the form of data files or a database (or, as it was known in old sci-fi films, its "memory banks"). But where did this knowledge come from? Or in other words, how did the computer learn all this stuff?

Of course, the computer acquired its knowledge by being programmed. This programming consists of both data entry, which can be thought of as "teaching" the computer raw facts, and what we commonly call "computer programming", which is essentially teaching the computer how to think (consisting essentially of logic and arithmetic).

So far, so good. The computer starts its life with a body of facts and the mental tools to reason and calculate other facts from those. It can also "learn" new facts as these are entered into it, and it can either "remember" or "forget" as we command.

It is true that the computer is able to "think" much faster than the human brain, at least when it comes to performing logical and arithmetic calculations, and in this sense it is superior in capability to the human mind. This is why we invented computers in the first place--to figure things out much more quickly than we ever could. In this sense we can say that computers are capable of creating new knowledge. But even so, the knowledge that is discoverable by the computer is entirely dependent on the knowledge (in the form of data and programming logic) that is given it by its human creators.

In other words, the computer can never discover or tell us anything that is independent of the data and logic with which we ourselves have programmed it, as though it could attain a godlike perspective. The computer, like us, is finite, its universe of actual and potential knowledge bound by the limitations of our own knowledge. It can marvelously extend the sphere of human knowledge, but it can never get outside that sphere.

The computer, too, cannot think creatively, imaginatively, or intuitively, but can only reason and calculate. This, too, limits the questions it can answer. It can only answer questions that are subject to logical or mathematical determination and empirical data, which is why it has been so heavily utilized in the worlds of business and science. It cannot tell us any truths of the kind traditionally told to us by poets and priests. It cannot question the basic assumptions of our own knowledge that are inherent in its programming.

I say none of this to disparage the computer, one of humanity's most remarkable inventions. Like all of the tools we have fashioned, the computer is there to help us and to make our work and our everyday lives easier and more productive. For many reasons, I am grateful to be living in the age of the computer.

But I won't be expecting to find the answer to "life, the universe, and everything" (somewhere amid "about 2,090,000,000" results) on Google anytime soon.

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