Archive Article: Are Humans Becoming An Endangered Species? 23 Nov 01
January 4, 2009

Technology and theology, science and ethics have often been at odds. Technological change once again requires more attention by Australian churches.

The National Cathedral in Washington DC is about to host an important seminar entitled “Are We Becoming an Endangered Species? Technology and Ethics in the 21st century”.

This is a good reminder on the need to once again pay attention to the impact that technological change is having on our lives. This was a big issue in theological circles until about a decade ago. But that interest has evaporated and we now just take it for granted.

For example, our lives depend on robots. It would be impossible to run modern Australia without them. However, most Australians are unaware of how important robots have become for our lives. Science fiction movies have presented a misleading impression of what a “robot” should look like. Our attention has been focussed on one type of robot, when in fact out of the public eye the real impact has taken place from another source – and it cannot be reversed. Indeed, the pace of robotic change has only just begun.

The word “robot” conjures up an image of a human-like machine made of metal, clanking around as it walks. The word “robot” comes from the Czech word for “work” and first appeared in a science fiction play. The idea was that machines could be created to do the work of humans and so they would need to look like humans.

In fact, the real robots do not look like humans – and are often so small that most humans do not even notice them. A modern car, for example, depends on computers both for its original design and its operation. The cost of the computer components exceeds the cost of the metal in the car.

The real “robots”, then, are computers. For example, if there were no computers in the US telephone system and humans had to be employed again to make the connections between callers (as per the 1929 standard exchange switchboard), then about a quarter of the US work force would need to be employed as operators.

.Gordon Moore made one of the most important predictions in the 20th Century. Moore is one of the founders of Intel. In 1965 he predicted that computer power would double every two years, halve in size and would halve in price in that same period.

A good way of understanding what “doubling” means is to look at the myth explaining the creation of the game of chess. The emperor offered the inventor anything he wanted as a reward. The inventor pointed out that there were 64 squares on the board. He asked for one grain of rice for the first square, two grains for the second square, four for the third square, eight for the fourth and so on until the 64th square was reached. By the time of the final square, the inventor would have received 18 million trillion tons of rice, the planting of which would have required the earth being cultivated twice over (including all the ocean areas).

The extent to which humans are now dependent on computers may be seen in the comparison between 1960 and 2000. In 1960, if all the world’s computers had crashed, few people would have noticed. But if all the computers had crashed on January 1 2000, then the world would have been plunged into chaos.

In 1990 the world’s greatest chess player – Gary Kasparov – played the world’s best chess computer and beat it. The computer team then went away to improve it – as per Moore’s Law. In 1997, the computer beat Kasparov in the return match. The computer will continue to double in power every two years. No human will ever match that computer in chess.