The Construction of Autonomous Tools
The construction of autonomous tools is my candidate for the most important invention of the past two milllennia.
Artificial complex adaptive systems, from robots to any type of autonomous agent, will change our worldview in a qualitative way, comparable to the way in which our view of the world was changed forever when we started to use tools.
Tinkering with tools has shaped our view of the world and of ourselves. For example, the invention of the pump enabled us to understand the mechanical role of the heart. Science was born when laboratory apparatus was used to select, among mathematical theories of the physical world, the one that corresponded most closely to reality. But all those tools have been lifeless and soulless things, and it is no wonder that our scientific worldview has tended to objectify everything. Grasping the proper role of the subject pole of experience, through the invention of subject-like tools, may provide the key to a far wider worldview.
With the invention of perspective in the late Middle Ages, we shifted our collective Western experience one-sidedly to the object pole, leaving the subject pole out of the picture. We started looking at the world from behind a window, and a couple of centuries later, in science, we attempted to take a God's-eye-view of the world. Now we are coming full-circle, with our science and technology providing us the means of exploration of the role of the subject.
We have made only the first steps toward building artificial subjects. Just as our current artificial objects are vastly more complex than some of our earlier tools, such as the wheel or the bow and arrow, our artificial subjects will grow more complex, powerful, and interesting over the centuries. But already we can see a glimmer of what lies ahead: our first attempts to build autonomous agents have taught us new concepts. As a result, we are now beginning to explore self-organizing ecological, economic, and social systems--areas of study where thing-like metaphors hopelessly fail.
PIET HUT is professor of astrophysics at the Institute for Advanced Study, in Princeton. He is involved in the project at Tokyo University to build GRAPEs (short for GRAvity PipE), the world's fastest special-purpose computers, designed for large-scale simulations in stellar dynamics,
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