For those of you who have never seen the movie “2001 A Space Odyssey”, you will fail to appreciate the title of this post. So I suggest that you stop whatever you are doing, including life-saving procedures, and immediately go out and rent and watch the movie.

“2001” is a science-fiction movie which delves into a whole range of topics. But one of the most fascinating elements of the movie is the role played by a nonhuman. Specifically, HAL is an incredibly advanced computer that, for all intents and purposes, thinks. Considering the many recent references to the computer system called Watson, and not just in this blog, you may actually wonder why the developers didn’t call it HAL. Once again, you need to see the movie to understand why.

As a side note, “2001” deals with space travel. If you have a computer that thinks like a human, and robotics that can do human tasks, why bother sending humans into space? For those of you who have asked this question, don’t bother seeing the movie. There’s a reason it’s called science-fiction.

But the question has already been raised countless times as to the significance of thinking machines. There is no lack of movies that consider this question. And given the pace at which technology is advancing, it is hard to believe that this will not become a real life issue before any of us is ready to deal with it.

A thinking computer can become the ultimate personal assistant for every human on the planet. Even before you personally realize that you need something, your thinking silicon-based personal assistant may have already acquired it. It would be the ultimate version of an Alfred or a Jarvis. And if you don’t know who these people are, you really are reading the wrong blog.

Having such a thinking computer control our water supply, our food production, our healthcare and every other element of our lives, will soon be a reality. Humans will likely still be involved in these industries for a few decades. But as time goes on, humans will become window dressing, to calm (and employ?) “the masses”. My children’s children may never learn how to drive because by the time they are 18, self driving cars will be universal. Having a human in the car at the time that it is moving, would effectively only be a liability with no perceivable advantage. And this will happen faster than we can imagine.

Can you turn a thinking computer off? I’m not going to argue about whether such computers have a soul. I would first argue that many people I have met in my life do not have one. But from a totally objective point of view, if the computer can think and can even answer the question “do you wish to be turned off”, what right do we have to make that decision for the computer.  No one questions the fact that any human, no matter how low their IQ, has certain inherent rights by virtue of being human. Does the fact that a computer is made of silicon eliminate those rights? What happens when computers are designed out of components that are carbon-based [look up carbon nano tubes].

So now we have something which is carbon-based and can think at least as well as most humans. At what point, does such a “thing” have rights. Here’s a cute question that I once asked an elderly rabbi. What if an advanced computer, capable of learning a page of Talmud better than any human, says “I want to convert to Judaism”. Do you say no? Are you allowed to say no?

This blog is about medicine and technology. But the very real ethical and philosophical issues that affect medicine, also affect technology. Humans are just waiting for the day when thinking machines can replace us for any dangerous task that we undertake. But people get killed walking down to the local grocery store, when they are hit by a drunk driver. Do we stay in our homes, asking smart computers to do everything for us, including going to the grocery? Don’t worry about the lack of exercise. But the time this happens, we will have a pill that modifies our biology so that we can sit all the time and still stay healthy.

People my age have the luxury of talking about such things but laughing them off. My children and all those of their age will have to deal with these issues in a very real way. I wish I had some brilliant advice to pass on. I am open to anyone who does.

Thanks for listening