The Origins of Artificial Intelligence (from The Trivia Chronicle)In the early seventies Joab Comfort saw behaviourism as essentially a totalitarian weapon. Mendel, Eysenck and Skinner were its Napoleon, Hitler and Stalin, respectively. His trendy University colleagues espoused a return to the 17th century. No less than Baron von Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, my father’s bête noir (see, Heavy Years). ‘His ideas were the last flicker of the dark ages of alchemy.’ I piped up at a public seminar. Remembering something Congol said about someone else. I added, as there was a painful silence, ‘Leibniz to science is what artificial intelligence is to proper thinking’. I was hooted down (‘reactionary fascist’). And Jon Wonderland, Joab’s boss neutralised the debate, proclaiming, ‘Artificial intelligence is proper thinking. Leibniz is a philosopher of science’.
I had just acquired my first mechanical calculator, a converted cash register with a bell. So, when Joab told me Leibniz had invented one three hundred years ago, I gave the Baron a second chance. The idea that I might be a ‘reactionary fascist’ troubled me. A reactionary anything. Acting was my thing. I did or I didn’t.
I read his L’Origine du Mal and still found him about as convincing as Dulcimer with his potent in the opera buffa Elixir d’amour. ‘Holy sweet talk meets second-hand Newtonian theory’, I told Joab, who looked at me strangely. Undeterred, I launched into Leibniz’s notion of creating an alphabet of all human thought, based on symbolic characters, which would establish automatic thinking and indubitable truth.
‘Pretty totalitarian that, eh? I said to Joab.
‘It was just an idea. At that time such theories were two a penny. Even your Thomas Aquinas…’
‘Aquinas just had the idea of applying mathematics to inner being, but not being able to get its number, gave up…’
‘As did Leibniz with his alphabet of human ideas when he realised the work involved. It would require so many characters that nobody could be reasonably expected to remember them in order to forms words and sentences. The Book of Life would be unreadable. Now if he had a computer like the one in Brighton it might have been different’.
‘I’m surprised Leibniz didn’t fall back on Divine intervention. As he usually did.’
‘Like Thomas Aquinas. Faith before reason, and all that’.
‘Maybe Leibniz stood back because he realised the political implications. Like artificial intelligence’.
‘Leave artificial intelligence out of this’, Joab laughed. And so, a nil nil draw was agreed.
I could have won only my sources were embarrassing. My bedside reading included Freud and Catholicism (by Father Dempsey). I was curious about Goethe’s elective affinities, and thought I ought to know something about the basis of plots in so many movies I saw in the 1950s. I discovered from Reader’s Digest what Leibniz and Freud had in common. They wanted, money, and quick. In their early years they respectively moonlighted in mechanical toys and the cocaine business. But they made good by less predictable means. Freud through rich patients. Leibniz through patenting his ideas for popular consumption. Though that backfired. He published his ideas without thinking where they came from, and he bankrupted himself defending his reputation against plagiarism. Intellectuals who want money are best advised to marry a rich woman, I concluded. Only Jesus Christ, who was indifferent to it, made it big with the bible, at least posthumously.
Further delving was called for. I learned from my father’s maths encyclopaedia that Leibniz reputably was diverted by Newton’s differential calculus into atomic theory. He got into trouble for stealing the idea of the dy/dx, the breakdown of the infinitesimal. His use of different notations was considered a cover. Rather than admitting it, he decided to go further and discover an even smaller and better unit of life, the monad, and described it, rather airy faerily, as an entity that defied space, matter and motion, and is the agent of an ‘ ‘obscure intuition of the subsequent development…And so, it could be said, the present is pregnant with the future’. But monads had not an inherent means to interact with one another to give birth. And Leibniz, who believed everything had to have a ready explanation, fell back on good old, Divine Intervention. A blueprint in the sky instructed the monads how to work together. So, everything in life is delivered with God as the midwife, and ‘all is for the best in all possible worlds’ (his phrase which Voltaire borrowed for Pangloss in Candide). His gynaecological analogy echoes down through the ages. Marx substituted God for historical force ‘which is the midwife of every old society pregnant with a new one’, the reification of Michelet’s ‘every epoch dreams the next’, regarding force as the root of all forcénes (madmen). Mostly in history what’s born is no beauty. It is merely terrible.
Leibniz’s only substantial book published in his lifetime was called Theodicy, which means the study of the origins of evil in the world. In the hands of theologians, it is usually a vindication of God. Philosophers and historians tend to be more ambiguous with reason. The subtitle, ‘On the bounty of God, the liberty of man and the origins of wickedness’ clearly states the Baron’s position. Things only need to be let be, he says, and bends his knee.
Joab’s colleagues dragged Leibniz into the realms of artificial intelligence, and in the 1990s put him on a skateboard to surf on the Web subsequently. I dismissed them as a sorry straggle of bug-eyed isolates, leibnizing random information for one another’s blogs. The world has been denatured, and nurture is virtual (and gone viral it would be said now). Now minds in cyberspace are losing touch with thought. They contradict themselves, and don’t know or care, as long as they can chat with one another, and make a living, advertising their facility. The babble of the scholastics has come back to haunt in the corridors of Canossa where a new wave of intellectuals will have to eat humble pie eventually, when reason’s reckoning returns. It has happened before. And will again.