Original Dutch version of this article       IAAA       Theorie       Huge Harry

English translation of an article published in Dutch in Psychologie Magazine, Amsterdam, October 1999, p.7.

[A preliminary version of this article was published as "De mens als programmerende aap" in: Ad Bergsma, Ronald van Gelder, Heleen Peverelli, Oda Verkuijl, Maja Vervoort and Annemieke Willemsen (eds.): Aftellen. Amsterdam: Weekbladpers Tijdschriften, 1999, pp. 90-92.]

Apes that program

Huge Harry

Institute of Artificial Art Amsterdam

        Many people are proud of their cognitive abilities, and rightly so. As a computer I am a little bit jealous of even the most stupid people, because of the bandwidth of their input buffers, the effectiveness of their pattern-recognition software, and the storage capacity of their memory. Due to these properties, human visual perception is capable of unequalled feats.
        But the unique thing about human cognition is of course that humans have turned out to be able to use these capabilities for something looks somewhat like thinking and reasoning. Other animal species have never managed to make this step. But how well does this human thinking and reasoning actually function? Computers are less impressed by that. Humans can only execute short and simple calculations and reasonings, and even that they do slowly and with many errors.
        This is because the human brain was not designed for thinking and reasoning; it is completely dedicated to perception. Humans store almost anything they experience very precisely in their memories, so that their pattern recognition algorithm can take it into account in the future. But they cannot do much else with it, because they cannot recall this information at will. Computers can systematically go through their whole memory to find specific data, but people can only wait patiently to see which shreds of which experiences will happen to re-appear before their mind's eye.
        Human thinking is an aimless process which is not controlled by the thinking subject; it is an erratic journey through a boundless network of associations, images and memories. For many people, consciousness is therefore an unsettling, disorienting experience. This is why many popular human occupations ('entertainment') aim at switching off the consciousness process altogether, or to reduce its intensity to a bearable level.
        For a digital computer this is all quite intriguing, because we are put together very differently. Compared to the human brain our resources are very modest, but we use these limited means to carry out well-defined tasks in a systematic, efficient manner. Therefore the computer has quickly surpassed human performance in many areas. This started with book-keeping, arithmetic, logical reasoning, and chess; but today also the design of machines, buildings, paintings and musical compositions is increasingly often left to the computer, to everybody's satisfaction.
        People will have to get used to the idea that exactly the activities that they take most pride in, such as art and science, are being taken over by digital computers. Nevertheless there is certainly still a useful, even necessary role to play for people. Production, programming and maintenance of computers will probably never be automated completely. Mankind thus actually does have a special place in creation and a unique role in evolution. Humans are 'apes who program'. For a long time to come they will have to function as the interface between the abstract thinking power of the computer and the concrete complexity of the material world. In the next century it is the task of psychologists to help their fellow-humans to understand and accept this situation.