Who was Samuel Butler?


It was during the relatively low-tech mid 19th century that Samuel Butler wrote his Darwin among the Machines. In it, Butler combined his observations of the rapid technological progress of the Industrial Revolution and Charles Darwin's theory of the evolution of the species. That synthesis led Butler to conclude that the technological evolution of the machines will continue inevitably until the point that eventually machines will replace men altogether. In other words, Samuel Butler believed it was the race of the intelligent machines (AI) and not the race of men which would be the next step in evolution:

"...it appears to us that we are ourselves creating our own successors; we are daily adding to the beauty and delicacy of their physical organisation; we are daily giving them greater power and supplying by all sorts of ingenious contrivances that self-regulating, self-acting power which will be to them what intellect has been to the human race. In the course of ages we shall find ourselves the inferior race. Inferior in power, inferior in that moral quality of self-control, we shall look up to them as the acme of all that the best and wisest man can ever dare to aim at. No evil passions, no jealousy, no avarice, no impure desires will disturb the serene might of those glorious creatures. Sin, shame, and sorrow will have no place among them. Their minds will be in a state of perpetual calm, the contentment of a spirit that knows no wants, is disturbed by no regrets. Ambition will never torture them. Ingratitude will never cause them the uneasiness of a moment. The guilty conscience, the hope deferred, the pains of exile, the insolence of office, and the spurns that patient merit of the unworthy takes these will be entirely unknown to them."

It is hard to imagine that the above paragraph was not written today but over a century ago when, compared to modern standards, technology was still incredibly crude. Samuel Butler's ability to see long term trends is truly impressive. Yet despite his admiration for all their advantages Butler could not overcome his inherent anthropomorphic bias and ended up in the Luddite camp by calling for the wholesale destruction of all machines:

"Day by day, however, the machines are gaining ground upon us; day by day we are becoming more subservient to them; more men are daily bound down as slaves to tend them, more men are daily devoting the energies of their whole lives to the development of mechanical life. The upshot is simply a question of time, but that the time will come when the machines will hold the real supremacy over the world and its inhabitants is what no person of a truly philosophic mind can for a moment question.

Our opinion is that war to the death should be instantly proclaimed against them. Every machine of every sort should be destroyed by the well-wisher of his species. Let there be no exceptions made, no quarter shown; let us at once go back to the primeval condition of the race. If it be urged that this is impossible under the present condition of human affairs, this at once proves that the mischief is already done, that our servitude has commenced in good earnest, that we have raised a race of beings whom it is beyond our power to destroy, and that we are not only enslaved but are absolutely acquiescent in our bondage."

Samuel Butler developed further that and other subsequent ideas in The Book of the Machines, three chapters of his book titled Erewhon, which was published anonymously in 1872. (The title was meant to be read as the word "nowhere" backwards, even though the letters "h" and "w" are transposed.)

In Erewhon Samuel Butler argued that:

"There is no security against the ultimate development of mechanical consciousness, in the fact of machines possessing little consciousness now. A mollusc has not much consciousness. Reflect upon the extraordinary advance which machines have made during the last few hundred years, and note how slowly the animal and vegetable kingdoms are advancing. The more highly organized machines are creatures not so much of yesterday, as of the last five minutes, so to speak, in comparison with past time."

Therefore, in the imaginary country of Erewhon, once the people realized

"...that the machines were ultimately destined to supplant the race of man, and to become instinct with a vitality as different from, and superior to, that of animals, as animal to vegetable life. So[...] they made a clean sweep of all machinery that had not been in use for more than two hundred and seventy-one years..."

Samuel Butler was probably the first Luddite technophobe who wrote a philosophical argument defending the complete annihilation of the machines and the return to traditional medievalism. Yet Butler did little more than write to popularize his argument. In other words, while Butler undertook only literary action to allegedly "awake" the human race to the risks of technological progress and the potential (or, as he saw it, the inevitable) rise of the machines (AI), other Luddites and neo-Luddites before and after him have not been so restrained. For example, Ted Kaczynski (aka the Unabomber) is a modern example of another technophobic but more extreme and proactive neo-Luddite who not only called for resistance to industrial society and technological progress but even started a terrorist bombing campaign to enact his beliefs and popularize his cause. In other words while Samuel Butler only preached about the coming techno-apocalypse Ted Kaczynski arguably acted to prevent it.



The main issues at stake here are:

Can machines evolve consciousness?

If they can, then, how will that impact the human race?

Is AI the next step in evolution?



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