Erewhon HTML version

23.The Book Of The Machines
The writer commences:- "There was a time, when the earth was to all appearance utterly
destitute both of animal and vegetable life, and when according to the opinion of our best
philosophers it was simply a hot round ball with a crust gradually cooling. Now if a
human being had existed while the earth was in this state and had been allowed to see it
as though it were some other world with which he had no concern, and if at the same time
he were entirely ignorant of all physical science, would he not have pronounced it
impossible that creatures possessed of anything like consciousness should be evolved
from the seeming cinder which he was beholding? Would he not have denied that it
contained any potentiality of consciousness? Yet in the course of time consciousness
came. Is it not possible then that there may be even yet new channels dug out for
consciousness, though we can detect no signs of them at present?
"Again. Consciousness, in anything like the present acceptation of the term, having been
once a new thing--a thing, as far as we can see, subsequent even to an individual centre of
action and to a reproductive system (which we see existing in plants without apparent
consciousness)--why may not there arise some new phase of mind which shall be as
different from all present known phases, as the mind of animals is from that of
"It would be absurd to attempt to define such a mental state (or whatever it may be
called), inasmuch as it must be something so foreign to man that his experience can give
him no help towards conceiving its nature; but surely when we reflect upon the manifold
phases of life and consciousness which have been evolved already, it would be rash to
say that no others can be developed, and that animal life is the end of all things. There
was a time when fire was the end of all things: another when rocks and water were so."
The writer, after enlarging on the above for several pages, proceeded to inquire whether
traces of the approach of such a new phase of life could be perceived at present; whether
we could see any tenements preparing which might in a remote futurity be adapted for it;
whether, in fact, the primordial cell of such a kind of life could be now detected upon
earth. In the course of his work he answered this question in the affirmative and pointed
to the higher machines.
"There is no security"--to quote his own words--"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 organised machines are
creatures not so much of yesterday, as of the last five minutes, so to speak, in comparison
with past time. Assume for the sake of argument that conscious beings have existed for
some twenty million years: see what strides machines have made in the last thousand!
May not the world last twenty million years longer? If so, what will they not in the end
become? Is it not safer to nip the mischief in the bud and to forbid them further progress?