Things Without Being
In the beginning, there were beings and things.
The most important beings were human beings, but we were not alone. Fellow animals walked the earth. We gathered the herd and lamented the rat. These were beings too.
In those days, we believed in beings we now know as things. The lunar eclipse and all motions in the heavens were the elaborate interplay of mighty gods. These most important beings carried human faces, human language, and human desire.
Conversely, some of today’s beings were once considered things. Most notably, diseases involving microorganisms. Many a medieval humor or dose of bad magic has been suggested as a material cause. A cup of lake water was not believed then to be filled with variegated living forms.
The categories of being and thing are fungible.
For eons, humans made things.
At first these creations were clearly things: a carved piece of bone, stone, or the like. Before long, animals were combined with objects to become part-being-and-part-thing. Ox and cart became oxcart.
As the animal disappeared, made things became entire beings. From gunshot to locomotive, many a modern thing might be seen as a being in the eyes of our ancient ancestors. But these machines were not alive to those who made them. They were animated, they had the exterior aspects of being. But where were the interior aspects of a being, specifically the properties found in humans?
We began to talk about a divide. Specifically, the mind/body divide. On the cusp of the birth of computation, two new words emerged: machine and consciousness, opposite sides of this divide. Accelerating technological change led to a new understanding of the body, followed by a new understanding of mind.
As machines grew, the soul lay hidden in an ever-shrinking territory, buffeted by the advances of science.
Artificial bodies began when we harnessed power.
The power of the body is expressed as physics: the ability to produce force, perform work. Eons ago, we yoked the animal, tamed the river, harnessed the wind.
With electricity and combustion, power became portable. Wheels, gears, pistons, and wires — the methods of controlling harnessed power — became precise. These artificial bodies came to surpass natural, animal bodies in many domains. Machines acted like beings.
These new machines did not look like animals. Robotic oxen do not plow fields in worlds with tractors. As humanoid robots climb the asymptote towards perfection, their advances decline in relevance. Sculpted automata are achievements of theater, not being. Today’s breakthroughs in mimesis are anti-climactic minutiae.
The irrigation ditch to carry more water, the automobile to travel faster, these historical inventions are not surpassed by humanoid robots today. The abilities of artificial bodies surpassed human ability long ago.
As power and material are the stuff of the body, information and calculation are the stuff of the mind.
Like artificial power, artificial information took some time to come into being. The crucial juncture for information was around 1918, but we did not realize it then.
Hundreds of years ago, we underestimated the importance of the first calculating mechanisms when they were invented. The same was true with the material forms that made power effective. The first time a branch was shaped to better carve the soil, no one imagined that wood as a blade for an ox-drawn plow. The first time metal was forged, no one imagined that swords would be replaced by bullets and guns.
Likewise with calculation. The first glimmers of artificial mind were so simple, we thought they were witless things. No one imagined that this very same process would one day enable a machine to know itself.