Artificial Intelligence is a Horseless Carriage


I've been thinking about words. The Chinese word for "train" - the mode of transport - is 火车. Which literally translates as "fire chariot". Long gone are the days when trains were pulled by a fire-breathing engine at the front, and yet this linguistic skeuomorph hangs around.

English is not immune from this. The television still asks us to "tune in" even though no-one manually tunes in a radio receiver any more. We still dial telephone numbers, even though the rotary dial went out of fashion with shell suits and Tamagotchi. Oh well, back to square one.

Even today, objects are often named after what they are not. Things are "wireless" - even when they've never been physically wired before. A remote control, despite most people not remembering a time when they weren't remote.

At the dawn of any new technology, this makes sense. The "horseless carriage" is a marketing term for the car. Everyone knew what a horse-drawn carriage was - so it is easy to understand the concept of a carriage which is propelled by some other force.

Nowadays, people can drive a Tesla motor car with 762 horsepower - despite having never seen a horse.

Incidentally, the term "horsepower" was invented to help compare the output of a steam engine to something more relatable to the populace.

And so we come to "Artificial Intelligence". A term coined in 1955 and which shows no sign of disappearing. A term which lets the laity understand the vague direction in which we're heading, while obscuring all the really interesting details. But first, a word from our sponsors...

Alan M. Turing thought about criteria to settle the question of whether Machines Can Think, a question of which we now know that it is about as relevant as the question of whether Submarines Can Swim.
Edsger W. Dijkstra The threats to computing science 1984

For most general purposes, we can take AI to mean "complicated algorithms running on very fast computers."

But what is an "algorithm?" Well, the word stems from the name of an ancient Arabic scholar "خوارزمی‎" - "the man from Khwarezm" literally translate. Al-Khwarezm becoming corrupted to the Latin "algorismus".

So, what does this Persian bloke have to do with intelligence, artificial or otherwise? He wrote extensively on how to use numbers to calculate things.

What is calculation? Well, that comes from the Latin calculus - meaning stone. Because when you are an Ancient Roman, the easiest way to count things is to place little stones on a counting board covered with sand.

Of course, computers don't physically move chunks of stones around any more - with or without the help of Persian geniuses. Instead, they trap electrons in little silicon mazes, and exploit them to make magnets dance in interesting ways.

Electrons, naturally, take their name from "ἤλεκτρον" - the ancient Greek word for amber resin. Because when you rub amber with wool, you get static electricity.

And magnets? Named for "Μαγνησία" - a city in ancient Greece where lodestones were found.

Artificial Intelligence, therefore, may be properly thought of as the method by which an old Persian magician uses counting stones, to move other stones, by way of amber resin, such that a casual observer thinks the stones are moving themselves.


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