The Sci-Tech Creed
What the people of the modern world
truly believe in.
And why it is nonsense.
(Like the discussion about automatic chauffeurs, this piece originated as part of an on-line discussion with the Father of AI, John McCarthy. As such, it represents a contribution to a discussion that ought to become public as well. This is simply a more generalized treatment of what was limited to computer-driven automobiles in the other piece. As I stated in that file, I do not consider myself in any sense a Luddite or an enemy of technology. I don't merely like technology, I revel in it, just as most of us on-line do. But I also recognize that there might be a price to pay for it. And that price might yet turn out to be a lot higher than most of us
are willing to pay.)
Some might say that most people
believe in God.
Others might claim
they believe in Democracy.
A few cynics might claim
that people believe most of all
They are all quite mistaken.
What most people today believe in is:
As we shall see, despite all manner of lip service to God, Government, Capitalism, and even Motherhood and the Family, this Creed represents what many people REALLY believe in today.
To the extent that they believe in anything...
It runs pretty much as follows:
The SCI-TECH CREED
Despite many gaps and delays in human history,
Science and Technology have at last found the gateway to true and perfect knowledge.
While mankind may have committed many blunders in the past,
at last we have seen the light, and there is absolutely nothing to worry about.
There are no material or moral problems which science and technology are not prepared to solve.
After all, humankind has conquered space, atomic structure, and the genetic code.
No goal is beyond our attainment, no knowledge is beyond our grasp.
Soon the remaining diseases which still afflict us will be cured, and we will be in a position to conquer death itself.
And of course there is no real problem of over-population, as some would have us believeif anything, there are too few people on the planetand we will always be able to find a way to feed and house them.
The extinction of other species is also no cause for alarm, since thanks to genetic engineering we will soon be able to restore all these species.
And thanks to the computer, all of human knowledge belonging to all the world's peoplesincluding all languages spoken in all countrieswill also soon be conquered, so that there can be no gap in our understanding.
In other words, there can be no possible shortcoming, no meaningful gap, in either our abilities or our understanding.
Furthermore, in the unlikely event that over-population or insufficient food resources ever were to become a problem, our space program will be able to export people to nearby galaxies, where life will go on much as usual.
Even the apparent distance of these galaxies presents no obstacle, as our cosmologists are working on theoretical solutions involving space warps, speed-of-light multipliers, and particle projectors.
At this point the whole Creed begins to shade over into sci-fi scenarios, which many of its tenets closely resembled to begin with.
When phrased this concisely and/or blatantly, even true believers may begin to spot a few flaws in these wishes masquerading as science.
But make no mistake, this Creed is one we live by, and our media repeatedly reinforce it every day.
Perhaps the reader has already noted some of the creed's internal contradictions...
But just for the sake of discussion, let's take each point one by one in order to see how truly deceptive every one of these tenets actually is.
1. We have "conquered space."
Since this alleged "conquest" is confirmed by almost daily news bulletins, it may come as a surprise for many to discover that we have not "conquered space" at all.
We have merely moved the goal posts to make us believe that we have done so.
Everything concerning space travel and the structure of the universe is headline news these days, but it may surprise some readers to learn that this was not always the case.
During the 'Forties this author was a teenager who paid weekly visits to the Hayden Planetarium as a "junior astronomer" and enthusiastically scoured the sky by night to identify the visible stars and constellations.
He even began to grind a six-inch reflector telescope to peer still deeper into the heavens.
He was very much alone in this pursuit back in the 'forties and was even regarded as an oddball because of it.
Things went so far that it was once actually suggested that he might be a German spy searching for signals from enemy airplanes.
Such was the level of scientific sophistication in those days.
But whatever our shortcomings may have been, at that time it was at least clearly agreed among astronomers that "space" began outside the Solar System, "outer space" began beyond the galaxy.
Today both these distinctions have been blurred and merged to the point that any person or vehicle that penetrates a few miles above our planet is said to be travelling in "space."
It provides us all with such a sense of prideand it sells far more newspapers and TV adsto claim that we have now suddenly become "space travellers" than to recognise the truth...
...that by reaching the moon humans have reached out a mere thirty times the diameter of the earth into the immensity of "space," while all of our orbiting craft achieve only a small fraction of that distance.
And even though a few slender vehicles have just begun to move beyond the solar systemwhich the law of inertia and not any true human achievement forces them to dothis does not by a long shot constitute the "Conquest of Outer Space."
Our actual achievements in both these domainsas measured against the vastness of the universeare in fact petty and inconsequential, as the recent tragic disaster with the Columbia Shuttle has perhaps just begun to teach us.
2. We have "conquered" atomic structure.
Certainly the wealth of new materials all around of us testifies to some real progress having been made.
But new complexities of atomic structure arise every day, new particles are discovered with unknown or unknowable properties, and we are nowhere near a final picture in this domain.
3. We have "conquered" the genetic code.
This particular boast, which may yet prove self-deceptive and overblown, is so much in the news today that little further comment is needed.
We have just seen America's farmers commit economic suicideand the nation itself commit political suicideby trying to promote genetically altered corn that no one in the entire world really wanted. At this point no one knows what the risk/benefit balance sheet is likely to look like. Further such fiascos are likely.
4. We are well on our way to "conquering" disease and may soon be able to "conquer" death itself.
First of all, many of the diseases we claim to have vanquished are now making a comeback.
Second, with each disease we eradicate, we merely leave the body prey to other illnesses.
And third, the human race will be very unlucky indeed if its members ever did succeed in "conquering" death.
Such a "solution" would bring about almost unimaginable new problems of over-population, inheritance, and the division of labor.
The one safety valve we have to population growth is Death.
If no one ever dies, how will we ever be able to cope with the growing rolls of the living, especially if the elderlyas has already begun to happenare themselves capable of bearing further children?
5. The use of genetic engineering to restore extinct species.
At present there is no evidence suggesting that such projects would have a high priority among genetic engineers.
On the contrary there is likely to be economic pressure to solve other more profitable problems first.
6. The appealing scenario of exporting our population to other planets revolving around other stars.
Anyone who believes this is possible should probably re-examine the answer to our first boast about having conquered space, and decide for themselves how likely this is.
7. Through the computer, the total "conquest" of human languages and all human knowledge for all time.
This is perhaps the most ridiculous claim among many.
It is also a field where the author, as is evident from this website, has published many papers, articles, and even the occasional computer program.
For over fifty years computer experts have promised the subjugation of language, but during that time almost all encounters between computers and human language have been remarkably close to outright disasters.
This applies to the quality of our computer documentation, as everyone freely admits,
it applies to our so-called natural language interfaces for our software,
it applies to endless levels of poorly designed hypertext,
it applies to our Internet search engines,
it applies to our spell checkers and grammar checkers.
And it most emphatically applies to our so-called "voicewriters," unable to cope with foreign accents, head colds, or ambient noise (and whose most advanced models were recently given the "Dubious Achievement Award" by a major computer magazine).
And of course it applies to our "machine translation" software, whose blunders and bloopers have become legendary over the last several decades.
But despite these repeated, massive, and decisive failures, several different species of academic specialists continue to attend conferences and publish papers promising that the "conquest of language" is just around the corner.
Whether they call themselves computational or applied linguists, cognitive neuroscientists, or statistical translation specialists, they would have us believebased on dubious linguistic theoriesthat the problem is well in hand and will soon yield a solution.
But the truth is that language is a far more difficult subject than the engineering background of many of these specialists has permitted them to realize.
The actual biological and evolutionary origins of language may lie far from the reasoned arrays of digital order and even overlap upon the primitive scent markings which animalsourselves among themuse to mark their territories, whether these are defined as a cache of nuts or a scientific paper.
Certainly such an explanation would tell us more about the internal workings of scholarly feuding than any theory of language now in fashion.
And this especially at a time when an unholy marriage between academia and the computer industry places a higher value on hyping high-tech developments than on the objective description of reality.
Faster and vaster computers cannot solve linguistic problems if we ourselves are unable to create an adequate model for human language.
But it may not be possible to create such a model, since it is language which to a great extent provides the models we build for reality.
Nor does the answer necessarily lie in continued researchas one computer translation authority has put it:
"A Manhattan project could produce an atomic bomb, and the heroic efforts of the 'Sixties could put a man on the moon, but even an all-out effort on the scale of these would probably not solve the translation problem.*"
Of course, there will of course be some who will maintain that the Sci-Tech Creed is still perfectly defensible and that all attacks by its critics are totally lacking in scientific evidence.
The problem with such a defense is that we have recently seen it employed by the Tobacco Industry, whose case has proceeded in public view from absolute denial to partial admission to total collapse.
Precisely why would any arguments favoring the Sci-Tech Creed be any more believable?
*Martin Kay, "Machine Translation," American Journal of Computational Linguistics, p. 74.
This article is Copyright © 1999
by Alexander Gross. It may be
reproduced for individuals and for
educational purposes only. It may
not be used for any commercial (i.e.,
money-making) purpose without
written permission from the author.
to other topics menu
to linguistics/AI menu