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'Let us make man in our own image...'

Peter Abrahams


Market Analysis

'Let us make man in our own image...' Lessons for the computer industry
A recent discussion on this quote from Genesis made me ask if the computer industry could learn from the experience.

My initial thought was we now say, or at least imply, 'Let us make this computer system in our own image...'. If we had a computer that was in some way self aware and was told that it was made in our image what would it be able to deduce about us?

Would the conclusion be that we must have silicon chips and a spinning disk etc? Obviously that would be wrong but it gives us an interesting insight on what we can know about God. That is a theology discussion which I leave for the reader to explore. You may also want to explore the use of 'our' in the quote.

Even if you do not believe in God the analogy is an interesting one to discuss the man-computer interdependency. What did God mean and why did an apparently perfect being make what must be considered an imperfect image? Can we learn something from God's experience of making us in their image and use it to develop systems?

God:

  • Made man with a different technology
  • The technology was imperfect in that it wore out and was limited in capacity and function
  • To compensate extra functions were developed such as reproduction and multiple copies
  • The image was only of partial representation as it is not all seeing or remembering

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The result was that the image developed a life of its own that could not be controlled. Maybe the flood and starting again with Noah was an attempt to fix some of the problems.

It has to be said that we appear to be doing the same thing. With the era of autonomic computing and straight through processing the implications are serious.

How do we ensure that these systems that run themselves without human intervention actually do what we intend? How do we recognise when they are not and how much damage could they do before they are stopped?

At first I thought that Asimov and his rules of robotics would help resolve this situation. However on re-reading them I felt they had at least two flaws. Firstly they are written for robots, robots tend to be human size and mobile, there main ability to harm humans is physical whereas the main ability of computer networks to harm people is monetary or informational.

The second problem is the ability of a computer system to have sufficient self-awareness and contextual awareness to be able to answer the questions: What impact will my action have on a human and is this impact deleterious? Also how does a computer make a moral judgement when the impact is good for one human and bad for another - think of computer fraud.

This is intended to be the first in a series of articles that use the God-human analogy to explore the man-computer paradigm.

My initial lesson from this is that in complex systems mistakes and unintended consequences will occur. This is the price we pay for the power of the system. Reporting and control points must be an intrinsic part of the design to ensure that we can recognise if the system is seriously deviating from our intentions.


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