Ben Klaasen's Reviews > The Mighty Micro

The Mighty Micro by Christopher Riche Evans
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A brave, exciting and Utopian prediction of the effects of the microchip revolution on society, written in an engaging style by academic and science populariser, Christopher Evans, in 1979.

This book is fascinating as much for what the author gets wrong as for what he gets right; in the former category, a twenty-hour working week, teaching computers which complement or supplant teachers, a highly interactive political system with weekly polling by citizens and the rise of 'ultra intelligent machines'.

His successful predictions include flat-screen TVs which act as media hubs, e-book readers, general purpose computing devices small enough for anyone to carry around (OK, iPhone users choose to dispense with the 'general purpose' part of that), ubiquitous network communications, radical alteration in the nature of work, the collapse of the Soviet Union and rising prosperity in what was then called the "Third World".

The book's biggest failing (and simultaneously what makes it so engaging) is perhaps the author's unswerving belief in the emergence of artificial intelligence (AI). The apparent intelligence of chess-playing computers, ground-hugging cruise missiles and interactive medical diagnostic systems of his day led Evans to believe that strong AI was just around the corner. This is an understandable position for him to have taken. Evans understood the principle of a Turing-complete computer: a device which can solve any problem capable of being expressed in mathematical terms. This is a simple idea, but it's an extraordinarily powerful one. All modern programming languages and machine instruction sets are effectively Turing-complete. That means that any computer can be used to simulate any physical (or non-physical!) system which can be expressed in some kind of mathematical notation. Think flight simulators, optical character recognition, speech recognition, even digital cameras. Evans believed that we'd be able to find a way to express the mechanisms of cognition mathematically. There's a telling paragraph, however, in which he surveys the state of our understanding of mental processes in 1979:

"Although in 1733 Alexander Pope advised that 'the proper study of mankind is Man', psychology is still one of the least advanced and most neglected aspects of science. The few explanatory models we have been able to scratch together to explain brain, mind, personality and their associated variables are disappointingly weak, and only the Pavlovian and Freudian views carry even a partial air of conviction. Psychology is still in its 'flat earth' state of development, and we now await a Pythagoras to come and tell us that the world is, after all, round. As with so many areas in science, the problem is tied up with the awesome complexity of the subject matter. No wonder learning, memory, perception, muscular control, thinking, reasoning, sleeping and dreaming - to name but a few functions - are still more or less total enigmas. Nor is it surprising that when the system or parts of it begin to malfunction and 'mental illness' ensues, we have virtually no understanding of its causes or treatment. The great gains in launching a major research programme designed to understand the brain and convert psychology from a soft to a hard science are likely to provide an irresistible lure. With the computer at our side we will be able to tap intellectual resources of a matchless kind, while approaching the problem with non-human detachment."

The circularity of this argument wasn't apparent to the author at the time, but it's plain to us: "We don't understand mental functions. We need to understand mental functions in order to build strong AI. We will use strong AI to help us understand mental functions."

Irrespective of flaws such as this, reading this book from a perspective a decade beyond the author's "long-term future" (1993 - 2000) allows us to re-assess the world we've built for ourselves. For example, why don't we have more interactive politics? There are no technical obstructions standing in the way.

This is a worthwhile book for the student of the history of computing. It shows us that at the dawn of what we now call 'the information age', intellectuals and technocrats were well aware of the radical changes which were about to be unleashed on society. Evans died just a year after completing his visionary book, so he never got to see if even the most short-term of his predictions were to be proved correct. If he were to have been granted a glimpse of the world in 2012, I wonder if he'd be pleased or disappointed at the world we've shaped for ourselves. Have we been making the most of that wondrous tool, the computer, to solve society's problems?
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Reading Progress

Started Reading
May 26, 2012 – Finished Reading
January 22, 2013 – Shelved
January 22, 2013 – Shelved as: computer-history

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