The Northern Spy — Pushing on Tropes

The Northern Spy

It’s often been said that 

half of Physics can be summed up in the sentence “You can’t push on a rope.” The other half is:





Well, the Spy has said both often enough, at least.

It’s a common belief, reinforced by a boatload of Speculative Fiction led by Isaac Asimov’s books featuring thinking robots, that RSN (Real Soon Now) we will succeed in creating true thinking machines that will either be equal with humans, or perhaps become our replacements. The parallel trope is that we will create artificial brains in silicon to which we can download recorded copies of human brains, thus achieving immortality as cyborgs. After all, Minsky opined that since the human mind is a meat machine, its functionality can surely be replicated in other media.

The Spy sides with Nobel laureate Roger Penrose (The Emperor’s New Mind) on this one. Machines are purely deterministic, and cannot duplicate human thinking, which can be anything but. He’ll also give a nod to Roszak:  

There is no possibility that computers will ever equal or replace the mind except in those limited functional applications that do involve data processing and procedural thinking. The possibility is ruled out in principle, because the metaphysical assumptions that underlie the effort are false. — Theodore Roszak (The Cult of Information)

And, given some of the human thinking we’ve seen in recent years on the subjects of elections, guns, the pandemic, quack cures, conspiracy theories, and the endemic attempts to anoint political waters with religious oil, it is doubtful that duplicating such in a machine will be fruitful. After all, one useful trope is that computerizing a bad system just turns slow-to-arrive poor results into catastrophic ones produced in mere nanoseconds.

It’s time to reprise an old theme of the Spy, the PIEA (Personal Intelligence Enhancement Appliance). The vision here has always been for augmenting and enabling human intelligence in portable devices, rather than trying to manufacture a new form of life or thinking. 

To be sure, the “pocket brain” is likewise a trope of speculative fiction.  But consider how far we have gone along this path in the last twenty years. The smartphone is already personal note taker, camera, multi-communication device, book reader, calendar, address book, calculator, word processor, gaming machine, and interface to the Internet. Hydra like, it grows new functions by the quarter, and few people are without one.

Enhance Internet resources to what the Spy has always called the full Metalibrary (everything ever spoken or written openly available to all, with an automatic mesh of dynamic multi-directional cross linking, curation by professional editors, whose article approvals constitute the month’s publication (whether journal, magazine, newspaper, newscast, or… , reputation weighted, micro accounted so fractional payments are transferred automatically from readers to creators. There’s a road to travel yet, but we have kilometres already travelled this way, and scarcely a toe on the A.I. path.

When that’s complete and functioning autonomously, work on the direct ear-eye-voice-brain interface so one’s thinking can be packaged and transmitted (largly visually, i.e. picted) to the recipient. Build you world view or way of thinking into a set of rules, rent it out to those who want to walk in your mindsteps, form virtual teams teams (Metapersons) for the really tough consulting contracts, thus professionalizing and virtualizing the workplace for good.

Rent your rooms’ wall and ceiling décors to display on roll down or painted on Metalibrary Terminals from museums or directly from artists, synthesize your personalized news feeds virtually anchored by mixing the voice patterns of current or historical characters of your choice (the narcissist reads her own choice of news stories to herself). 

Current problems would still exist, and be exacerbated, for the Internet would also continue to facilitate echo chambers for little minded people with fantasy visions of conspiracy plums dancing in their heads. It would still foster unsocial social media pseudo-communication in minimal characters a less meaningful content. Even if it enabled more participatory democracy, it would not produce better political outcomes or even reasoned discourse. The PIEA-Metalibrary combination would be the ultimate research and collaboration tool going forward, but junk “research” presented at fake conferences and written up in journals of ill-repute would still multiply like cluster flies on a hot day. Technology is always a two-edged sword, enabling both the good and the bad with equal vigour.

We’re partway to the PIEA-MT-ML vision first elaborated decades ago in this space and in the ethics and society textbook linked to below. Indeed, revising that text to a fifth edition for a Fall course after a decade-and-a-half hiatus consists of changing much of the material from future tense to past and present ones, and the exercise provided the impetus to beat the drum here once more. Now if technology could only improve human nature instead of empowering all its worst tendencies.

The pitter patter of little feats

goes on apace. The Spy’s castle has the 30-year-old exterior vinyl siding stripped, Tyvek wrapping in place, and Hardie board siding piled in the driveway awaiting new window installation (replacing the clunky, leaky, non-insect-proof, drafty, 90s aluminum ones he’ll be glad to see gone). Lotsa work, and a good thing there’s only thirty hours in the day to do it, and they’re all filled. Good thing these days.

Short column. More on the new technology mentioned last month when we meet again.

–The Northern Spy

Opinions expressed here are entirely the author’s own, and no endorsement is implied by any community or organization to which he may be attached. Rick Sutcliffe, (a.k.a. The Northern Spy) is professor of Computing Science and Mathematics and Assistant Dean of Science at Canada’s Trinity Western University. He completed his fifty-second year as a high school and university teacher in 2022. He has been involved as a member of or consultant with the boards of several organizations, and participated in developing industry standards at the national and international level. He was co-author of the Modula-2 programming language R10 dialect. He is a long time technology author and has written two textbooks and ten alternate history SF novels, one named best ePublished SF novel for 2003. His various columns have appeared in numerous magazines and newspapers (dead tree and online formats), since the early 1980s, and he’s been a regular speaker at churches, schools, academic meetings, and conferences. He and his wife Joyce celebrated their fiftieth anniversary in 2019 and lived in the Aldergrove/Bradner area of B.C. from 1972 to 2021, where he now continues alone, depending heavily on family to manage. 

URLs for Rick Sutcliffe’s Arjay Enterprises: 

The Northern Spy Home Page:

opundo :

Sheaves Christian Resources :

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nameman :

General URLs for Rick Sutcliffe’s Books: 

Author Site:

Publisher’s Site:

The Fourth Civilization–Ethics, Society, and Technology (4th 2003 ed. ):

Other URLs of relevant interest: 

BC Government COVID site:


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