01 November 1997

The double-edged sword of autonomy

Babbage was recently intrigued to read The Man who was Frankenstein, in which Mr Peter Haining argues that Babbage and Lovelace’s mutual friend, the electrical experimenter Mr Andrew Crosse, was Mrs Mary Shelley’s chief inspiration for her fictional scientist. Babbage finds this plausible, remembering well the moral outcry at Crosse’s later and much-disputed creation of insects - Acarus mites - by the action of the voltaic battery.

After 150 years, however, the idea of artificial organisms has become less outrageous. Machines are gaining autonomy: for instance, the remotely controlled vehicle exploring the planet Mars can refuse instructions that might endanger its safety. Babbage envisaged the Analytical Engine as a tool merely for amplifying the powers of human thought, and even Lovelace, with her greater prescience, said it would have “no pretensions whatever to originate anything”. Both are amazed, however, by the progress toward apparently sentient Engines.

In a European military research establishment, Babbage was shown rabbit-sized roving automata, equipped with jointed manipulator arms and electronic ‘eyes’ and ‘ears’. When not under direct control, they randomly patrol their environs to learn its geography. To ensure their own survival, they hide from any large moving object, and seek out electrical sockets to ‘feed’ (Babbage is reminded of Crosse’s ‘Acarids’). The military staff casually mentioned a future capacity for lethal force, tempting Babbage into considering noise-sensing automata as a stern measure against raucous street music.

In the same establishment, staff carry portable Analytical Engines interconnected via a wireless telephony network. Could the small vehicles be similarly linked, Babbage wondered? Yes, he was assured -- very easily. It is not, he feels, a very great leap to imagine a linked ‘swarm’ of such vehicles, comprising, like ants, a greatly flexible, dispersed entity. The loss of a single automaton would not fatally injure the swarm, which could repair itself or even manufacture complete new vehicles. Perhaps such swarms are the future of planetary exploration and much else besides.

Human sentience, it has been argued, derives from manipulative capacity and a critical number of neural connections. How large must a swarm be, Babbage wonders, to provide that critical number? He finds the question fascinating; but with the prospect of automata free to decide to copy themselves or to kill, Mary Shelley’s warning about irresponsible scientific creation carries as much weight today as it did when Babbage, as a young man, first read Frankenstein.