You can tell I’m way behind in my reading because I’m just now getting to November’s Lady Churchill’s, that fine little zine of literary spec fic. You may remember the November issue: regional stories with down-homey feel oddly lacking in postmodern irony. Good stuff.
There’s one weird story in this zine full of weird stories that struck me: Ted Chiang’s Problem of the Traveling Salesman. Not really a story or even an opinion piece, it reads like a Trade Journal for Mathematicians Lite paper. In other words, the subject matter is equations, but even I can follow the arguments.
Mr. Chiang’s piece is about one particular equation: P=NP. I’d never heard of this trifle before and was delighted by its introduction as an important bit of mathematica. Apparently, P=NP is quite popular with problem solvers. There are no more philosophers in the world; anybody that has a head for big thinking nowadays is working on this P=NP thing. I don’t blame them. There’s a one million dollar bounty on this rapscallion’s head. Whoever brings it home alive is going to be very, very rich. Well, they’ll be a millionaire. Not sure if that’s still rich by today’s standards.
I won’t go into detail here about what P=NP means. You can look it up yourself in Wikipedia [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/P_%3D_NP_problem] or get the lite eplanation in November Lady Churchill’s [http://www.lcrw.net/lcrw/]. $5.
Suffice it to say that proof of P=NP resides in solving the NP-complete problem. Which doesn’t help us much because now we have to figure out what NP-completeness is. I’ll defer to Wikipedia again because I don’t think it’s all that important here. What is important is Chiang’s assertion that for a computer to solve the equation, you’d need to “send signals back in time…an efficient solution to NP-complete problems might be as remote a possibility as time travel.” If we can travel through time we can solve P=NP. Unfortunately, we need the technology to travel through time first. Why do I get the feeling that we could invent time travel is we could just solve P=NP? And as per the above, solving P=NP requires traveling …nevermind.
Mr. Chiang’s final conclusion is my favorite: “creativity can’t be automated.”
Seems intuitive, but there are more than just a few people in the world who believe the digitized human mind will lead to unbounded creativity.
My intuition revolts against that idea and says that can’t be. My intuition also says, why would you want it to be anyway? The funny thing is intuition is a bit like traveling through time to get the technology to travel through time. If we knew what intuition was, we’d be able to program it to solve all these paradoxical problems. We’d be able to digitize the human mind and automate creativity. It’s as if these unfathomable, untouchable things all belong to a universe we’re not privy to if for no other reason than because we simply can’t imagine it.