Pity the computer that wants to think like us

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The Independent Online
Sometimes you get enlightenment from listening to the news not because of what they tell you (the idea of being enlightened by what they tell you in the news is so far-fetched that only John Birt would believe in it) but because of the juxtaposition of news items. Start putting a few unrelated news items together and you start making sense of the world.

Take, for instance, the following five leading news items which I have recently had jingling around in my mind like small change ...

1. Kevin Keegan has resigned as manager of Newcastle United, though nobody seems to be sure why.

2. Several people have failed to go round the world in a balloon. (Actually, they have only failed to go round a quarter of the world, but it sounds better if you say they have failed to go round the whole world.)

3. Malcolm Rifkind is visiting the capitals of Europe to explain the British government policy on Europe not to other governments but to the people. He says he is doing this because the whole thing is bigger than just diplomats and bureaucrats, and should involve everyone in a great debate.

4. As the royal yacht Britannia goes on its last voyage, the Government proudly announces that the taxpayer will replace it with a new pounds 60m ship.

5. Computers are getting ever nearer to being able to think like humans.

Right. Let us look at these news items one by one.

1. The mystery of Keegan's resignation. The mystery here is not why Keegan resigned (the mystery is why any football manager stays in the job at all) but why it became such a sensational news headline. Most people don't care about football. Most people even in Newcastle don't care a lot about football. Therefore most people do not think that Mr Keegan's resignation from one of the better football teams in the north of England is a world- beating news headline. I would suspect that not even John Birt does, though of course we do not know John Birt's opinion on anything mundane, and we cannot understand his opinion on anything else.

2. There are two balloon mysteries here. One, the mystery of why anyone would want to go round the world in a balloon. Two, the mystery of why an abject failure to do so should be a leading news item.

3. The mystery here is why Malcolm Rifkind should think that the foreign secretary of a disruptive government which has another couple of months to run should be the best person to explain to the peoples of Europe what the European Community is all about. (One should always be wary when politicians talk about a "great debate". What they mean by this is restricting the discussion to their fellow politicians.)

4. It is hard to understand why the Government is so proud of announcing plans for a replacement for the royal yacht "Britannia" at the very moment when the new replacement is needed. Or, to put it another way, why the Tory government is so inefficient that it has only just thought about replacing the royal yacht at a time when the old one is on its very last trip. If you or I announced, at the moment when our car had been taken off the road for good, that we were seriously thinking of getting a new one built, would we be looking for applause? I think not. I think we would be apologising.

5. Every time I read that computers may one day be able to think like humans, I think about such news items as the previous four and I think to myself that what computers want to be able to do is think UNLIKE humans.

Human beings, after all, are so self-centred and so parochial that we place ourselves at the centre of the universe and imagine it is all being done for our benefit. We even conceive of God entirely in human terms, in terms of what He can or cannot do for us - when an atheist says that he cannot believe in a God which would allow all this injustice and cruelty, what he is saying is that he could only believe in a God which gave mankind a special deal.

And then we assume that a computer's top ambition would be to think like a human! The arrogance of it! The parochial small-mindedness of such an assertion! If I were a computer, I would want to think bigger than that. If I were a computer, in short, I would remember what Disraeli said to the Count d'Orsay when they were discussing the advantages of various nationalities.

D'Orsay: Yes, I am proud to be French! I was born French, I am French and I shall die French!

Disraeli: What! Have you no ambition, sir?

Yes, I hope computers have more pride and ambition than to want to think like humans.