With the repeated occurrence within the world of sci-fi of technology finding a will of its own and disobeying human instructions, one can't help but wonder how we close we, 20th Century-Folk, are to meeting this new level of artificial intelligence. At what point can we say that computers and robots "think?" And when should we fear a 2001/Neuromancer/Ghost in the Shell type of submission to our biologically challenged brethren (or sisterthren)? (In future stages of the hollow etiquette of political cerrectness, the term "computer" will become a racial slur.) Many fear that this transition, this growth emergence of technology into consciousness, will be invisible. What if the government's computer network independently decides to lob a few warheads over to Russia, perhaps for little more than entertainment. Humans have little comprehension of what's going on behind that glass monitor. We exist every day on the brink of a run-away computer program that has the potential to destroy the world, right? And if an artificial intelligence program can carry on a relatively competent conversation with an unsuspecting human (which many have done for years), what's to say that this program isn't alive? Perhaps technology will reach this state at some time in the future, but for now, and at least for the next ten years, there is absolutely no chance of this occurring, and I'll tell you why (if you're willing to sit through a brief physics lesson.) The answer lies in quantum mechanics.
Let me first explain what quantum mechanics is. Relative aspects of QM can be envisioned most clearly and intuitively through the use of a mental model designed by the late Charles Schroedinger called Schroedinger's Cat. Quantum effects are usually confined to the scale of the atom. Whether a particle follows one path or another can be predicted through probability, but particular cases are inherently unobservable. As soon as we record whether a particle has followed path A or path B, the behavior of the particle will appear to have followed one path or the other, but if we don't check, and we just make sure that the particle has traveled one of those two paths to reach a common destination, then the particle has traveled both paths. Not either path, but both. This effect can not be adequately explained within the confines of this mini-essay, but this phenomenon has been consistently tested and confirmed by physicists for decades, and there is no doubt that it happens. By measuring the particle's path, we have directly altered its history. No, this is not supposed to be intuitive. That is why QM provides such an incredible view of reality that very few people recognize.
Back to the cat. There is a cat locked in a box with a device that releases toxic gas that can kill the cat. This device is connected to a detector that senses the decay of a single atom. There is a 50% chance that this atom will decay within a certain time frame, and so during this time there is a 50% chance that the cat will die. The theory states that until we open up the box and look at the cat, the cat is BOTH alive AND dead. Two possible histories exist simultaneously, and when we open the box we destroy one of the two histories.
So scientists are working hard to try to take advantage of the strange effects of QM within the context of computing devices. The implications can only be hinted at, but the new method would allow "communication" between particles separated by great distances (even billions of light years) with zero time delay. We could also avoid the limits that heat and size present to current silicon technology. Eventually we could make computers that far surpass present speeds of "classically"-designed computers. (Classical physics refers to all linear, causal, normal physics that described our world before the discovery of QM.)
Speed is not the only issue. The implementation of QM effects plays a much more fundamental role -- this a completely different form of computing. But there already exist billions of such quantum-processors: our brains. In an idea popularized by British mathematician Roger Penrose, there exist tiny mechanisms within the structure of neurons that allow single electrons to flip back and forth between two states. These electrons act freely without contamination by causal waves, (=brushes with the classical world that would destroy one of its multiple histories.) and can interact freely with each other through uncertain means. It has been shown that many such electrons within a certain distance of each other can begin to resonate at a common frequency, and it is proposed that this cooperative effect can happen between groups of neurons separated by several inches within the brain. One might say that a group of neurons acting together like this represents an "idea." Only after they have communicated with each other for a while do they come into contact with the classical world and begin to direct the motion of other substances within the brain, and eventually our bodies and the outside world.
One of the key differences here is the distinction between serial processing and parallel processing. A computer chip processes instructions one at a time, very rapidly, so your computer appears to be doing many things at once (moving the arrow around, printing a paper, playing a CD). The brain, on the other hand, does many things at the same time, but consciousness feels like a single, temporal journey through experience. Electronic gates in a computer circuit already open and close faster than a neuron can fire, but they will never effect consciousness until scientists design circuits that can manipulate and foster complex quantum mechanical interactions without crushing them, and thus create a true parallel processor (that then may magically "feel" to itself like a serial string of events from a single "viewpoint.")
This model of consciousness, as effected through QM interactions within the brain, leaves a lot of room for theorizing. While we can determine the probability of certain quantum events, we cannot give an answer as to which particular event will take place, or rather which event will have taken place after the experiment once the path has been recorded. This leaves a window for apparently random events, completely escaping our classical philosophy that tells us everything must be caused by something else. So for now, we all have personal freedom as to how we explain this mystical process. Personally I tend to theorize that control over these quantum decisions lies within some kind of transcendent force, or forces lying in another dimension (Who's to say that we only have 3 physical dimensions? All we can really say is that humans have evolved to perceive 3 dimensions, while there may be others that played no significant role in Darwinian survival-of-the-fittest here on Earth.) or that consciousness in transcendent, or that there exists a "soul" which acts as a ghost in the machine of our minds, where the states of particular electrons in our brains act as controls for the pilot to manipulate. Anyway, you're on your own from here . . .
The point, by the way, is that at the moment we have nothing to worry about. There is no need to fear computers taking over any day now, as this will not even become a possibility before the implementation quantum computational devices, which is many years away. [2-12-98]