Each day it seems we hear news of some remarkable innovation in artificial intelligence. Whether it be something mundane, like a better recommendation algorithm at Netflix or Amazon, or something dramatic, like Uber and Google’s self-driving vehicles that promise (or threaten) to replace human drivers.
But instead of looking forward and worrying about some science fiction future, we might learn a thing or two by looking backwards to our past. Whether we know it or not, we have been involved with a kind of artificial intelligence for quite some time…for well over 500 years.
This machine intelligence does not leverage the power of digital computers but employs the old-school technology of paper and ink. In a word, books.
As literary scholars point out, books can be seen from one of two different perspectives. They can be understood as a medium of communication through which an author speaks to a reader. But they can also be seen as a kind of self-contained and autonomous system.
A book like James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake is not just a means for the author to tell us a good story. It is literally a machine—a human designed apparatus with its own internal logic and operations. And the challenge of reading the book is not simply a matter of figuring out what Joyce wanted to say. It involves learning how to interact with the complex logic and operations of this literary mechanism. For this reason, books may indeed point the way forward into the future.
I’m David Gunkel, and that’s my perspective.