From what I have been reading in the news recently, my reviews might soon be written by a chat bot. Erewhon, by Samuel Butler published anonymously in 1872, contains one of the earliest explorations in literature of artificial intelligence. I thought it was time to take a look.
The opening chapters introduce us to Higgs, the book’s narrator, who lives in an unnamed British colony working on a sheep station. Butler based this section on his own experiences in New Zealand, where he fled to escape his overbearing, religious family. Just like Butler, Higgs goes on an expedition to explore uncharted areas.
After a perilous journey across a mountain range, Higgs finds himself in the country of Erewhon, which is an odd, distorted, mirror image of his own society. Different aspects of Erewhonian life come in for study – the criminalising of physical illness while moral lapses receive compassion and medical assistance; the odd banking system where people deposit money at symbolic banks to build up a kind of spiritual capital; a literal-minded religion, an antipathy to machines, and a shaky tradition of halfhearted vegetarianism. All of these topics cause Higgs to question conventional ways of thinking.
And this is where the famous section on machines and artificial intelligence comes in. Pursuing his Erewhonian studies, Higgs finds The Book of the Machines. This is a set of documents describing a crisis thousands of years previously, when rapid technological evolution led to fears that machines would eventually enslave, or supersede, humanity. Reading The Book of the Machines, conventional assumptions come in for a pummelling. Machines are not considered as living, sentient things, but where does the dividing line exist? Is a leg a machine that life uses to get about? Or is a leg itself life? Plant life is not generally considered sentient, even though plants act to protect themselves and communicate with each other. Machines also protect themselves and communicate with each other. They need outside help to reproduce, but so do plants, which employ the services of bees. And if we worry about becoming slaves to machines, what is the nature of the relationship that already exists? In the nineteenth century people were already serving machines in a slavish capacity. A stoker on a ship spent backbreaking days feeding and tending a machine which relies on people for its continued existence. Equally, people rely on the labour of machines for their continued existence. The present population of the world could not be supported without them.
So coming back to where I started, does this book make me feel any better about the prospect of a chat bot writing my reviews? Well, first I have to say that Erewhon is remarkable, coming out of strait-laced Victorian society, throwing over conventional thinking so completely that it remains challenging and thought provoking hundreds of years later. As for what the book has to say about artificial intelligence, you might end up agreeing with the Erewhonians who decide that it is safer to get rid of machines, given how they might develop in the future. However, there is much to suggest this is not sensible The relationship between people and machines is almost as old as humanity itself. In fact, use of tools, which evolved into machines, might actually be the defining characteristic of humankind. People and machines are mutually dependent. Rather than seeing a threat to humanity from machines, you could say that for better or worse, humans without machines are not really themselves.