There are beautiful women that will still keep that status 30 years from now too, when they are old and wrinkled, because of the ‘Helva effect’. One I can think of is Erin Burnett (CNN OutFront). In fact, Erin represents what I always thought Helva would be like, if Helva had a face: intelligent, inquisitive, energetic, independent, caring, beautiful. Another one is Anne, who writes about numbers – check this out. But who is Helva? Helva is a female cyborg portrayed in the 1969 Novel ‘The Ship Who Sang’ (originally published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in 1961). The term ‘cyborg’ (cybernetic organism) usually refers to a human who has been enhanced with mechanical parts. Therefore it has human intelligence but it has also technology on its side to deal with human physical limitations. Helva does not have a face, but she is still beautiful. She doesn’t age as fast as we do, but if she did, she’d still be beautiful. The theme of the story is that being beautiful loses its physical meaning in Helva’s world.
In a future when the talent and potential of severely crippled babies don’t have to die, such creatures have a very minimal physical existence that is trapped in a metal box with minimal life-support, and a mental existence that serves humanity (Well, they have to serve, since they owe so much to those who saved and trained them). They become brains for cities, plants, etc, and most notably spaceships. Or rather, ‘brainships’. Helva is a brainship.
I read a translated version of this story sometime in the late 1980’s and was fascinated with the ideas. First, that physical attributes will one day become meaningless, because people will be able to alter their appearance any way they want, so what difference does it make? This idea is not new and not foreign to us at all; chemistry between people is very, very often independent of their appearance. Nevertheless, even people who made choices based on intellect, talent, sense of humor, etc., are not immune to the influence of someone really good-looking. This influence is burned into our genes, our racial memory – if such a thing exists – we usually can’t escape it. But this story changes that, and takes it to the extreme. Physical attributes will be a moot point, especially for the brainships. They’ll be attracted to each other based on the strength of the aura of intelligence they posses. This aura is visible to the brainships, and increases with IQ. Helva’s burns like the sun. What a concept.
Second, no matter how advanced AI (Artificial Intelligence) becomes in the future, it will still be preferable for a human brain to run pretty much everything, contrary to many sci-fi predictions. This was not a main theme in the story, but a side-effect of it. In any event, this idea is also very much debated in non-fictional, scientific articles. Classic Sci-fi is very hopeful and optimistic, because the scientific community in the 1970’s was, about how far AI’s can progress, in the relatively near future. It isn’t so these days. We now appreciate it will take much, much longer, before we can count on C-3PO and R2D2 to save the galaxy.
Surprisingly, it would seem that the main reason for this ‘stall’ in this field is that the conventional scientific methods and algorithms are failing to meet minimum success standards. A trend emerges, described in a recent textbook “Artificial Intelligence: A Modern Approach” (2010). The trend is called ‘shallow programming’. The gist of it is that you can get better, more accurate answers from an AI program, if it uses algorithms that are more superficial, that make generalized, simpler assumptions. Google’s ‘Feeling Lucky’ might be such an example. You can find more about this in this article by Brian Hayes who says: “Perhaps we should not be bragging about how smart our machines have become; rather, we should marvel at how much those machines accomplish without any genuine intelligence.”
Bottom line is, we let machines perform such tasks that they are good at, out-sourcing to them the ‘dirty work’. They do not yet constitute a threat to human intelligence. Even if they (IBM’s Watson) did manage to beat the best human minds on Jeopardy (after 4 years of development).
So maybe this is why so many Sci-fi writers saw the future in Cyborgs. More about cyborgs in a separate post. For now I’m content to feel superior to AIs, even if they can beat me in Chess. And that’s one thing we share with Helva.
If you are intelligent, you are beautiful.