This is my first year in CCT. Before this CCT program, if you ask me what is a computer, I will answer that computer is a device that can carry out some arithmetic or logical operations. But at the end of 12 weeks of study of this course, I will answer that computer, is a computing artifact and an affordance of humanity’s cognition.
In these weeks, we go through the history of semiotics from C.S. Peirce’s theory of signs to the Saussure’s semiotic model, the history of meaning systems and symbolic representation from the earliest records of symbolic expression to computational language processing and artificial intelligence, the history of models of computation, the history of computing systems from memex by Vannevar Bush and the Dynabook by Alan Kay to the laptop and other computing devices today. After dipping into these theoretical backgrounds, I can see that my thinking of this world and human beings has been changed.
Humanity Memory V.S. Computer Storage
Nowadays, there have been major breakthroughs in the human brain understanding; some of them can directly change our daily life. However, media on human brain knowledge is far less than common sense. Common people, including me, have a lot of misconceptions about the human brain. The most popular one is the analogy between the human brain and the computing systems. This misunderstanding mainly comes from science fiction. Many science fiction works describe humanity’s memory as a data that can be erased and revised. For example, in the Matrix, people can learn martial arts or how to drive a helicopter by directly receiving codes.
Human’s memory is not recorded in the brain, but grows in the brain. The brain remembers things through neurons. There is an example: a patient had no pain nerves, which means that he can remain awake throughout the craniotomy. The doctor found that one of his nerves jumped when he saw the picture of Jennifer Aniston, and another one jumped when he saw the photo of Bill Clinton. The human brain arranges a specific nerve for each person he knows. In computing, the most semiconductor memory is organized into memory cells. It is easy to save a file on the hard disk, just change the arrangement of bits (0 or 1), but it is impossible to change people’s memory.
Computing Devices & Human Beings
After reading those science fiction works, I could not help but think of the day that the artificial intelligence will destroy the human world. Now, a lot of field people are working on the advantages of human beings relative to artificial intelligence. We have the unique human expectations of the future. We are the only species has the ability to understand the long-term future and make plans for it. In the book “The Future of the Mind”, the Japanese physicist, Kari Daishi, points out that the biggest difference between human beings and other species is that our brains understand the concept of time. So that the long-term interests will drive us to give up some short-term interests, and the collective development will drive us to give up some personal interests.
Of course, no one can predict the extent to which technology can be developed. Maybe one day, the machine can fool the human, and can even affect mankind.
However, after learning knowledge of semiotics, I see them from different angle, I regard these cognitive-symbolic artifacts as the extensions of human cognition. If you look at the history of computing systems, computing systems are getting smaller to smaller. At beginning, its size is about a room. In 1970s, we had the personal computers. Now, I have a laptop in my bag everyday, and we wear Google glass and all the other wearable devices. The next step is that they will be under our skins. So they become closer and more intimate to us, we are absorbing computers into us. In this society, we are bringing technologies to us, and they become parts of us. We are no longer independent from our technology. They change our identity of who we are. In the past, we thought ourselves ending by fingertips. After we are expanding ourselves with the help of those computing systems. Some people may concern about that the artificial intelligence and technologies may replace people from their jobs. It is true that some jobs will disappear, but it will create more new jobs for people. That is what we are doing, using technologies to create new things for people to do and further evolving to new creatures.