Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Arthur C. Clarke's "Dial F For Frankenstein": A monster of an AI is accidentally born!

Key premise of this very entertaining story is obviously flawed: current internet more than fulfills the conditions, & we don't yet have the monster.

I am not an expert in neural networks or biology of cognition, but consciousness apparently requires something more than just an enormous number of interconnected switches. May be the right initial state - & a few million or billion years to accidentally reach that state, if at all? I don't know. But I enjoyed the story.

Story summary.

Story is set in London in 1975. "At 0150 GMT on December 1, 1975, every telephone in the world started to ring"! Next day will see chaos all over - radio stations shutting down, stock markets & banks shutting down, traffic signaling systems down, electricity grid behaving erratically, military weapons launched without human authorization, planes almost crashing, ...

But it all began with phones ringing. You pick up the receiver, & some funny non-human sounds appear for a few seconds before it hangs up. Rest of the chaos will take a while over the following day to manifest.

Much of the story is the discussion in a restaurant among some phone people of what could have caused the anomalous ringing event. With reports of other chaos slowly reaching - strengthening the initially insane theory put forward by Dr John Williams, Mathematics Division.

"human brain is a system of switches - neurons - interconnected in a very elaborate fashion by nerves. An automatic telephone exchange is also a system of switches - selectors & so forth - connected with wires..."

But there "are about fifteen billion neurons in the brain? That's a lot more than the number of switches in an autoexchange...

Fifteen billion sounds a large number, but it isn't. Round about the 1960s, there were about that number of individual switches in the world's autoexchanges. Today, there are approximately five times as many...

And as from yesterday, they've all become capable of full interconnection, now that the satellite links have gone into service."

You see, an AI was born automatically in this network. Phone event, a couple of hours after the satellite hookup, was its birth pangs. Now the baby is trying things out - and will likely break some as part of its normal growth!

Amid more reports of chaos, they conclude the newly operational satellites will have to be put out of action. Only, the baby has thought of it before the humans. Satellites no longer respond to commands from humans at ground control!

See also.

  1. In this Part 4 of the 7 part interview about HAL, the AI in "2001 A Space Odyssey", Clarke talks about this story in one paragraph. Nothing new, but kind of puts this story in a larger context.

Collected in.

  1. "The Collected Stories of Arthur C Clarke"
  2. "More Than One Universe"
  3. "The Wind from the Sun"

Fact sheet.

"Dial F For Frankenstein", short story, review
First published: Playboy, January 1964.
Rating: A

3 comments:

Gene said...

Thanks for the brief but informative summary!

ARaybold said...

I have just found out (from I-ku-ku at Ars Tech) about Murray Leinster's short story 'A Logic Named Joe' (1946) which anticipated this theme in an imaginary internet-like environment. I think there is a good chance Clarke read it. Clarke's version of the theme makes use of his own invention, the communications satellite.

Tinkoo said...

I've read both & I don't see anything in common except that they're both about computers.

"A Logic Named Joe" anticipates the kind of fun we have with modern internet connected home computers decades ago, when even the term "computer" wasn't common. The "Logic" of title means "computer". This story used to be online; search the site & you should get the link.

"Dial F for Frankenstein" is about the idea that when there are enough connections among computing entities, intelligence will automatically emerge - as a property of this configuration.