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Why Fruit Fly Testes Matter (And Not Just to Lady Fruit Flies)

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Science is amazing.  If the search for answers to the question of human aging leads us to fruit fly testes, as it apparently has, then fruit fly testes are getting smeared on a slide and going under the microscope.  I’ll bet funding for this research was approved without so much as a “hmmm” or even a scratch of the head.  It’s SCIENCE.

To be serious for a moment, this is about stem cells.  According to researchers at the Salk Institute for Biological Research, stem cells found in fruit fly testes are remarkably similar to human stem cells.  If you wonder how this can be, just think of Legos and the great variety of things we can create with just a few different types of building block.  A carbon atom is a carbon atom whether it’s harvested from a gnat’s vagina or a human brain.  Ultimately, this is what science is looking for, the building blocks, the material causes underlying the world we see around us.  Ceteris paribus, when doing research you might as well harvest from the easiest source.

Given the exponential growth in our ability to manipulate the building blocks of nature it’s not surprising that many look forward to a day when machines will be as intelligent as human beings.  Isn’t the human brain just an intricate organic computer?  Look at how advanced non-organic computers have become in just 50 years.  Why won’t we be able to build an artificial intelligence that can do everything organic intelligence does and more?  With the explosive growth of technology that day may not be far away…

There are doubters, however.  I stumbled across one at kurzweilai.net, a great site that pulls together articles on artificial intelligence, the exponential growth of technology, and the science behind the coming Singularity.  (I discovered the article on the Salk Institute’s research there as well.)  This doubter claims:  “Machines do what they are designed and programmed to do, they will never think creatively.”

This is a very good question.  Aren’t all machines, even the most advanced computers, limited by what they are designed and programmed to do?  Even a learning computer is designed and programmed to “learn.”  A learning hierarchy of some kind is supplied by the designer who programs it.  This hierarchy supplies a learning computer with its “purpose” and guides the use it makes of what it learns.  A computer might learn to detect all sorts of human emotional states and to reply appropriately.  From everything I’ve seen, these rules of appropriateness will be generally humane or compassionate.  It will respond as we would like to be responded to if we are angry or upset with the words, and perhaps even more importantly the tones, it has learned are most soothing.  Would we ever program a computer that might refuse to answer a question because it is angry, as my wife sometimes does?  When interacting with a non-human environment it will be searching for information as to how things “work.”  But in all cases, won’t the “purpose” with which it “acts” be the purpose we have given it?  As creators we will not, like God, permit our creation free will.  Or will we?  Could we?  As science takes us deeper inside insect genitalia, we tend to overlook such basic questions.

In response to the suggestion that machines only do what they are designed to do, another commenter at kurzweilai.net asked the doubter: “Can you explain why you say so, and what is the difference in principle between an organic and a non-organic brain?”

There are two questions here, regarding two statements:

Statement 1:  Machines do what they are designed and programmed to do.

Statement 2:  They will never think creatively.

Question 1:  Why do you say so?

Question 2:  What is the difference in principle between an organic and a non-organic brain?

The answer to Question 1 seems to me to be, ‘he says so because it’s true.’   Can anyone point to a machine in existence anywhere that doesn’t do what it is designed and programmed to do?  I would very much like to see an example; anyone?

Certainly machines malfunction and in this case they don’t do what they were designed and programmed to do.  Or do they?  Don’t machines malfunction due to some flaw in the design or programming?  That is, if a machine malfunctions it does so according to our faulty design and programming; it is still our design and programming, or forgetting of some variable, which is responsible for the malfunction.  A machine does not revolt or choose to ignore its programming; it malfunctions.  There is no decision, no freedom, and no creativity in malfunction, only design flaw.

It seems to me both questions are actually addressed to Statement 2 alone.  Indeed, how can we know that a machine will never think “creatively?”

Question 2 is most interesting.  It avoids the issue whether machines only do what they are designed and programmed to do.  Behind it lies the assumption that organic brains think creatively.  If organic brains think creatively, and if there is no difference “in principle” between organic and non-organic brains, then non-organic brains will also think creatively.  This is the assumption.  But what if organic brains also give necessary, pre-programmed answers?  If the purpose animating organic brains is from God, or from the evolutionary process as a tool, like claws, that aids survival, how can it be said that organic brains think creatively, or escape pre-programmed necessity in any way?  Isn’t our drive toward the Singularity a product of this evolutionary need or desire, the desire to survive, more than anything else?

If there is no difference in principle between organic and non-organic brains, if they are both incredibly intricate computers, i.e., if they are both machines that serve some outside purpose, then neither are capable of creative thinking.  Is that what organic brains are?  As it stands now, all non-organic brains are machines we use to serve our purposes.  (I’m still waiting for an example of one that doesn’t.)  If an organic brain is also such a machine, a tool in the service of some outside purpose, the purpose for which it is organized, in the same way that non-organic brains are, then who or what uses this tool?  Until we are able to answer this question, we will not be able to answer the question whether we will be able to create a machine some day that can think creatively.

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