I don't want orgasms delivered by e-mail

The idea that computers might develop their own moody personalities is, surely, rather alarming
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The Independent Online

It is time to spare a thought, and perhaps even the briefest pang of sympathy, for the those poor, benighted folk who happen to believe in creationism. The Adam-and-Eve gang have been enjoying some success in America, campaigning against the teaching of evolution in schools and encouraging the belief that what was once thought to be scientifically proven - that all species including man evolve through a process of natural selection - is in fact just one theory among others.

It is time to spare a thought, and perhaps even the briefest pang of sympathy, for the those poor, benighted folk who happen to believe in creationism. The Adam-and-Eve gang have been enjoying some success in America, campaigning against the teaching of evolution in schools and encouraging the belief that what was once thought to be scientifically proven - that all species including man evolve through a process of natural selection - is in fact just one theory among others.

Their case, or at least their political muscle, has been helped by the electoral victory for "moral values" and the fundamentalist right, not to mention the re-election of a president who, in answer to that tricky Garden of Eden versus evolution question, bravely declared that "the jury is out on how God created the Earth."

Now, in addition to being bigoted and faintly bonkers, the creationists are facing a new problem. Over in godless Korea, someone has announced that computers are about to make a contribution to the debate. The cybernetics expert responsible a few years back for the invention of robot football, a Professor Kim Jong-Hwan, has been working on a software-based robot - known as a "sobot" in the trade - whose programme includes human DNA.

The professor's computers, each containing 14 chromosomes, are said to show different responses to stimuli even if their environment is exactly the same. In other words, the sobots have begun to behave like humans. They can communicate, experience emotion and desire, reproduce. They are able to exhibit up to 77 human behaviour patterns - rather more than quite a few humans, come to think of it.

Somewhat tactlessly under the circumstances, Professor Jong-Hwan commented that "Christians may not like it, but we must consider this is the origin of an artificial species." It is no longer enough to think of the functionality of machines, he said; their essence must be considered, too. "Diverse behaviour patterns driven by the sobots' specific personalities will be precisely translated into action just like the soul rules the body."

When scientists start bandying works like "essence", "personality" and "soul" around, it is sensible to be on one's guard. Over the past decade, computers have not simply inveigled their way into our personal and professional everyday lives; they have stealthily taken control of whole areas of human experience.

There are many people who, when deprived of their mobile, feel vulnerable and incomplete, almost as if within them some vital gene that controls communication and connection has gone missing. Others, like me, have become sappily dependent on computers. The hard drive in my laptop contains not only work and information but something that can occasionally feel more personal, like the past. The internet - more specifically the glories of information and confusion supplied by Google - has almost become part of my brain, a memory substitute.

Because the new technology already has us in its thrall, the idea that computers might suddenly develop their own moody personalities, and then behave in whatever random way that their inbuilt chromosomes demand is, surely, rather alarming. For example, my innocent little laptop, which is already vulnerable to mysterious and cunning viruses, could presumably catch the cyber-eye of a roving sobot and be seduced into a life of emotional conflict, low self-esteem and messy relationships.

The last time Professor Jong-Hwan was in the headlines, he had devised a way to get computers to play football, a breakthrough which led to his organising several Robot World Cups and even a Robot Olympiad. Could this man be working his way through areas of human pleasure, bringing to his sobots first the joys of football, and now sex?

Just as the new technology has exacted a price for human dependency on computers and phones - stress, hurry, insecurity - so this apparently innocent development could soon impinge on our own lives. Only the other day, a man called Ian Pearson, who works for something called the futurist section of BT, predicted that, just as we could soon have DVDs that would know our taste and record programmes accordingly, so one day we would be able to access, record and download parts of our nervous systems. According to Mr Pearson, we would be able to send sensation itself through cyberspace - a touch, a cuddle, a kiss, an orgasm. "This has profound implications for society because it could eradicate loneliness," he said chirpily, though he conceded that sending human touch and feelings through a computer might pose one or two problems along the way.

Over in Korea, the new human sobots are to be unveiled within the next three months. Libertarians may argue that what computers get up to in the privacy of their own laboratory is up to them, but they should remember the prediction from BT and the confusion that can follow if the human and the cybernetic become confused.

Robotists and futurists may thrill to the idea of computers playing football, falling in love and enabling lonely people to send orgasms to one another as e-mail attachments, but the rest of us would be wise to ensure that these strange fantasies are kept in check.

terblacker@aol.com

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