Summary of Hans Moravec’s, Robot: Mere Machine To Transcendent Mind

Hans Moravec (1948 – ) is a faculty member at the Robotics Institute of Carnegie Mellon University and the chief scientist at Seegrid Corporation. He received his Ph.D. in computer science from Stanford in 1980 and is known for his work on robotics, artificial intelligence, and writings on the impact of technology, as well as his many of publications and predictions focusing on transhumanism.

Moravec set forth his futuristic ideas most clearly in his 1998 book Robot: Mere Machine to Transcendent Mind. He notes that by almost any measure society is changing faster than ever before, primarily because the products of technology keep speeding up the process. The radical future that awaits us can be understood by thinking of technology as soon reaching an escape velocity. In the same way that rubbing sticks together in the proper manner will produce ignition, or powering a rocket correctly will allow it to escape the earth’s gravity, our machines will soon escape their previous boundaries. At that time the old rules will no longer apply; robots will have achieved their own escape velocity.

For many of us, this is hard to imagine because we are like riders in an elevator who forget how high we are until we get an occasional glimpse of the ground—as when we meet cultures frozen in time. Then we see how different the world we live in today is compared to the one we adapted to biologically. For all of human history culture was secondary to biology, but about five thousand years ago things changed, as cultural evolution became the most important means of human evolution. It is the technology created by a culture that is exponentially speeding up the process of change. Today we are reaching the escape velocity from our biology.

Not that building intelligent machines will be easy—Moravec constantly reminds us how difficult robotics is. He outlines the history of cybernetics, from its beginnings with Alan Turing and John von Neumann, to the first working artificial intelligence programs which proved many mathematical theorems. He admits that most of these programs were not very good and proved theorems no better or faster than a college freshman. So reaching escape velocity will require hard work.

One of the most difficult issues in robotics/artificial intelligence is the disparity between programs that calculate and reason, versus programs that interact with the world. Robots still don’t perform as well behaviorally as infants or non-human animals but play chess superbly. So the order of difficulty for machines from easier to harder is: calculating; reasoning; perceiving; and acting. For humans, the order is exactly the reverse. The explanation for this probably lays in the fact that perceiving and acting was beneficial for survival in a way that calculation and abstract reasoning was not. Machines are way behind in many areas yet catching up, and Moravec predicts that in less than fifty years inexpensive computers will exceed the processing power of a human brain. Can we then program them to intuit and perceive like humans? Moravec thinks there is reason to answer in the affirmative, and much of his book cites the evolution of robotics as evidence for this claim.

He also supports his case with a clever analogy to topography. The human landscape of consciousness has high mountains like hand-eye coordination, locomotion, and social interaction; foothills like theorem proving and chess playing; and lowlands like arithmetic and memorization. Computers/robots are analogous to a flood which has drowned the lowlands; has just reached the foothills, and well eventually submerge the peaks.

Robots will advance through generational change as technology advances: from lizard-like robots to mouse-like, primate-like, and human-like ones. Eventually, they will be smart enough to design their own successors —without help from us! So a few generations of robots will mimic the four hundred million year evolution marked by the brain stem, cerebellum, midbrain, and neocortex. Will our machines be conscious? Moravec says yes. Just as the terrestrial and celestial was once a sacred distinction, so today is the animate/inanimate distinction. Of course, if the animating principle is a supernatural soul, then the distinction remains, but our current knowledge suggests that complex organization provides animation. This means that our technology is doing what it took evolution billions of years to do—animating dead matter.

Moravec argues that robots will slowly come to have a conscious, internal life as they advance. Fear, shame, and joy may be emotions valuable to robots to help them retreat from danger, reduce the probability of bad decisions, or reinforce good ones. He even thinks there would be good reasons for robots to care about their owners or get angry, but surmises that generally, they will be nicer than humans, since robots don’t have to be selfish to guarantee their survival. He recognizes that many reject the view that dead matter can give rise to consciousness. The philosopher Herbert Dreyfus has argued that computers cannot experience subjective consciousness, his colleague John Searle says, as we have already seen, that computers will never think, and the mathematician Roger Penrose argues that consciousness is achieved through certain quantum phenomena in the brain, something unavailable to robots. But Moravec points to the accumulating evidence from neuroscience to disagree. Mind is something that runs on a physical substrate and we will eventually accept sufficiently complex robots as conscious.

Moravec sees these developments as the natural consequence of humans using one of their two channels of heredity. Not the slower biological means utilizing DNA, but the faster culture channel utilizing  books, language, databases, and machines. For most of human history there was more info in our genes than in our culture, but now libraries alone hold thousands of times more information than genes. “Given fully intelligent robots, culture becomes completely independent of biology. Intelligent machines, which will grow from us, learn our skills, and initially share our goals and values, will be the children of our minds.”[i]

To get a better understanding of the coming age of robots consider our history as it relates to technology. A hundred thousand years ago, our ancestors were supported by, what Moravec calls, a fully automated nature. With agriculture we increased production but added work and, until recently, production of food was the chief occupation of humankind. Farmers lost their jobs to machines and moved to manufacturing, but more advanced machines displaced farmers out of factories and into offices—where machines have put them out of work again. Soon machines will do all the work. Tractors and combines amplify farmers; computer workstations amplify engineers; layers of management and clerical help slowly disappear; and the scribe, priest, seer and chief are no longer repositories of wisdom—printing and mass communication ended that. Automation and robots will displace gradually replace labor as never before; just consider how much physical and mental labor has already been replaced by machines. In the short run, this will cause panic and the scramble to earn a living in new ways. In the medium run, it will provide the opportunity to have a more leisurely lifestyle. In the long run, “it marks the end of the dominance of biological humans and the beginning of the age of robots.”[ii]

Moravec is optimistic that robotic labor will make life more pleasant for humanity, but inevitably evolution will lead beyond humans to a world of “ex-humans” or “exes.” These post-biological beings will populate a galaxy which is as benign for them as it is hostile for biological beings. “We marvel at the Earth’s biodiversity … but the diversity and range of the post-biological world will be astronomically greater. Imagination balks at the challenge of guessing what it could be like.”[iii] Still, he is willing to hazard a guess: “…Exes trapped in neutron stars may become the most powerful minds in the galaxy … But, in the fast-evolving world of superminds, nothing lasts forever …. Exes, [will] become obsolete.”[iv]

In that far future, Moravec speculates that exes will “be transformed into intelligence-boosting computing elements … physical activity will gradually transform itself into a web of increasingly pure thought, here every smallest interaction represents a meaningful computation.”[v] Exes may learn to arrange space-time and energy into forms of computation, with the result that “the inhabited portions of the universe will be rapidly transformed into a cyberspace, where overt physical activity is imperceptible, but the world inside the computation is astronomically rich.”[vi] Beings won’t be defined by physical location but will be patterns of information in cyberspace. Minds, pure software, will interact with other minds. The wave of physical migration into space will have long given way to “a bubble of Mind expanding at near lightspeed.”[vii] Eventually, the expanding bubble of cyberspace will recreate all it encounters “memorizing the old universe as it consumes it.”[viii]

For the moment our small minds cannot give meaning to the universe, but a future universal mind might be able to do so when that cosmic mind is infinitely subjective, self-conscious, and powerful. At that point, our descendants will be capable of traversing in and through other possible worlds. Unfortunately, those of us alive today are governed by the laws of the universe, at least until we die when our ties to physical reality will be cut. It is possible we will then be reconstituted in the minds of our super intelligent successors or in simulated realities. But for the moment this is still fantasy, all we have for now is Shakespeare’s lament:

To die, to sleep;
To sleep: perchance to dream: ay there’s the rub;
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil …

Summary – Our robotic descendants will be our mind children and they will live in realities now unimaginable to us. For now, though, we die.


[i] Hans Moravec, Robot: Mere Machine to Transcendent Mind (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 126.
[ii] Moravec, Robot: Mere Machine to Transcendent, 131.
[iii] Moravec, Robot: Mere Machine to Transcendent, 145.
[iv] Moravec, Robot: Mere Machine to Transcendent, 162.
[v] Moravec, Robot: Mere Machine to Transcendent, 164.
[vi] Moravec, Robot: Mere Machine to Transcendent, 164.
[vii] Moravec, Robot: Mere Machine to Transcendent, 165.
[viii] Moravec, Robot: Mere Machine to Transcendent, 167

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