Why Minds are Not Like Computers

If you have any interest in intelligent algorithms Ari Schulman has an article worth reading in the Winter 2009 volume of The new Atlantis. I am not particularly fascinated with what some think of as Artificial Intelligence; I can’t stand the term, to be frank, and hold the acronym in no higher esteem. But I am very fond of algorithms which occasionally seem to be intelligent, particularly as they apply to gaming and game theory. And seeming to be intelligent is, as Schulman reminds us, all the Turing Test requires. Having written a fairly popular backgammon game for Windows back in the early 90’s I have some direct experience of how much easier it is to opine on the idea of decomposing complex thought processes into rules and procedures than to actually do it. In a cogent and well-written tour of the last thirty years of thinking in the field of intelligent programs, Schulman applies his insights about the nature of mind and machine, and comes up with some convincing reasons why a layered, modular, procedural description of intelligence continues to be an ellusive goal.

The Funny Things About Foundation

When Isaac Asimov first conceived the idea for his Foundation stories it was 1941, and World War II had just erupted. The first three stories in the series appeared in John Campbell’s Astounding Science Fiction magazine between 1941 and 1944. The whole breadth of the tale was not finalized and collected into book form until the early 1960’s. In 1966 it won a Hugo for Best Science Fiction Series, a category created to honor it and one other seminal competitor: J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.

I first read the Foundation series front to back in the early 1990’s. Recently I got the bug to reread it, probably because my steady diet of nonfiction had become overwhelming. A number of things stand out to my older and more critical eye. Some of them are anachronisms that certainly would have seemed reasonable to Asimov in the 1940’s, but which, when they appear in a far-future setting of galactic empire and interstellar travel, seem highly amusing to those of us in Asimov’s future who still don’t have any of those things. Others are just quirks of the writer’s own style that caught my eye. So here are a few of the funny things about Foundation:

They Use Paper

The setting is the far, far future. The Milky Way Galaxy consists of millions of populated worlds united under the Imperial rule of Trantor. Vessels of every description use hyperspace jumps to travel effortlessly and quickly between the stars. And yet, when Mayor Indbur of The Foundation is irritated or bored in Foundation and Empire he scratches little drawings on sheets of paper from a pad and then tosses them into an atomic flash disposal unit. When a secure personal message needs to be delivered it arrives sealed in a tube, engraved on silvery film that quickly destructs as it is read. Perhaps most amusingly, when in that same volume Ducem Barr visits Trantor in the company of Lathem Devers one of the first things he does is grab the topmost of a stack of newspapers. Here in the 21st century the debate rages as to whether newspapers have any economic role in the new world of information, and paper is used less and less each day. But to the Asimov of the 1940’s these seemed like important and durable features of civilization. Asimov did not predict email, or data encryption, or the web, at least not in Foundation.

Everyone Smokes

Tobacco use was prevalent and popular in Asimov’s day, and it is sprinkled liberally, though not artlessly, throughout Foundation. Cigars are most often mentioned, followed by cigarrettes and pipes. On two of the narrated appearances of Hari Seldon his simulacrum makes the unseen audience free to smoke as part of his introduction. Atomic flash dispensers are provided on desks and in waiting areas for the disposal of ash and the cleaning of pipe bowls. In the early story of Terminus the qualities of Vegan tobacco are extolled over the home grown variety, but as the empire fails home grown is all they have. As the Foundation establishes itself cigarrettes make a reappearance. When in Second Foundation the team of Toran, Bayta, Mis, and Magnifico visit the ruined world of Trantor to search the library there, they are offered home grown cigars from a ceremonial humidor, and even the woman, Bayta, partakes. The health effects of tobacco were not unknown when these stories were written, but they were buried under a tidal wave of positive messaging. Tobacco seemed like another permanent fixture of civilized society to Asimov, and he had no reason to foresee the negative perception that would attach to the tobacco leaf over the next fifty years.

Everything is Atomic

Speaking of nuclear flash disposal units, virtually all the high tech in the stories is nuclear powered, and often in amusingly naive ways. Atomic radiation is used to execute prisoners, destroy documents, dispose of waste, and lend an aura of godhead to the boy king Lepold of Anacreon. Nuclear power is the economic leverage which Terminus uses against Anacreon, which no longer has it. It powers all devices from the largest ships and their weapons down to the seemingly magical jewelry with which the Foundation trader Les Ponyets ensnares the nobility of Askone. In the 1940’s and 50’s the U.S. Government was happily subjecting thousands of soldiers and civilians to radiation to see what would happen. The dangers of radiation were not well-understood, and Asimov was predicting that it would come to be the basic source of power for all of modern civilization and beyond. Today we in the U.S. are so intimidated by it that we haven’t begun a new nuclear power plant in fifteen years or more. To be fair to the author, virtually all SF stories of this period made liberal use of the wonders of atomic power. Modern authors are required to be more sophisticated.

Computerized Star Maps!

In 1941 the first modern computer was two to four years from being invented, depending on whose version of the history you want to believe. In Asimov’s fictional world computers play a very minor role. They are calculating and counting machines, as in the one that controls Hari Seldon’s Time Vault on Terminus. These were the things that scientists were considering using computers for at the dawn of the second World War. Asimov did not predict networked information and the revolution it would have on media (see “They Use Paper” above). Messages are still written down or sent by “Hyperwave Relay.” Video is delivered by television, and in one case he actually mentions “television sets” being sent to a backward world as an item of trade. But the best example is the navigation of starships. In Second Foundation when Han Prichard and Bail Channis travel to Tazenda to seek the location of the Second Foundation they are aided by a useful new tool that has just been developed: a screen that can display the stars as they appear from any point in the galaxy, and even zoom in on and rotate around any point. Imagine! Those of us who use Celestia, or World-wide Telescope to do the same thing today from our desks at home, but who still can’t travel anywhere beyond the confines of our own planetary system, are allowed a chuckle, but will have to forgive Asimov’s inability to foresee all this.

Gender Roles

When the Foundation stories were born World War II was just about to lay down the first real challenge to traditional gender roles, as men marched off to war and Rosie marched down to the aircraft factory to spend her days with a riveting gun. There are few strong females in Foundation. All the great events of history are manipulated, discussed, and reacted to by men. Bayta, the wife of the trader Toran in Foundation and Empire is one of the few examples, and even she is not immune from the views of women as Asimov observed them in his day. When the planet Haven is under threat from the Mule, Bayta counsels one of the girls who works in her volunteer group to “visit the washroom and get your peaches and cream on.” Asimov is trying to demonstrate the emotional condition of the population of Haven, which we later learn is due to the Mule’s specific abilities. Naturally those most affected by an emotion-based attack are the females! Off to the washroom, ladies. Still, we can hardly give or take from Asimov on this account. He was just working from what he knew, and what he thought the things he knew might lead to.

It’s All Dialog

This last one is not an anachronism, but rather an interesting note on the author’s style. Asimov mentions it himself, in his introduction to the paperback edition of the series. When preparing to write the fourth story after a long hiatus he reread his earlier work, and was uneasy because there was no action. He must have gotten over that uneasiness, because he stuck more or less to the same pattern for the rest of the series. There are little bits of action here and there: someone fires a blaster, or a ship lands. But for the most part the entire plot is advanced through dialog. Each scene begins with a minimum of descriptive set-up in which the characters are introduced, and then proceeds through the dialog resulting from the set-up. It is in the dialog that open questions are resolved and the next set of questions introduced. As a writer who has made paltry attempts at fiction here and there I find this fascinating. It tells me that plot and character are the things that count. Description and action serve only to support and advance the characters and what happens to them, and Foundation is an extreme example of this in action, from a master of the art.