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THINKING SALTMARSHES

URSULA MARTIN

Professor of computer science, Oxford University

Hiking toward the saltmarsh at dusk, I pause, confused, as the footpath seems to disappear into a long stretch of shallow muddy water, shining as it reflects the light of the setting sun. Then I notice a line of stepping-stones, visible only because their rough texture just ruffles the bright smooth surface of the water. And I set my pace to the rhythm of the stones, and walk on across the marsh to the sand dunes beyond.

Reading the watery marshland is a conversation with the past, with people I know nothing about, except that they laid the stones that shape my stride, and probably shared my dislike of wet feet.

Beyond the dunes, wide sands stretch across a bay to a village beyond. The receding tide has created strangely regular repeating patterns of water and sand, which echo a line of ancient wooden posts. A few hundred years ago salmon were abundant here, and the posts supported nets to catch them. A stone church tower provides a landmark, and I stride out cross the sands toward it to reach the village, disturbing noisy groups of seabirds.

The water, stepping-stones, posts, and church tower are the texts of a slow conversation across the ages. Path makers, salmon fishers, and even solitary walkers mark the land; the weather and tides, rocks and sand and water, creatures and plants respond to those marks; and future generations in turn respond to and change what they find.

Where then are the thinking machines? One can discuss the considerable challenges to artificial intelligence posed by scene analysis and route-finding across liquid marshes and shifting beaches; or in grasping narratives of the past set out not in neat parsable text but through worn stepping-stones and rotting wooden posts.

One can picture and debate a thinking machine to augment the experience of our solitary walker. Perhaps a cute robot companion splashing through the marsh and running out along the sand chasing the seabirds. Or a walker guided along the path by a thinking machine that integrates a buzz of data streams on paths, weather, and wildlife, to provide a cocoon of step-by-step instructions, nature notes, historical factoids, and fitness data, alongside alerts about privacy risks and the dangers of the incoming tide. Or a thinking machine that works out where the birds go in the summertime, or how to make the salmon abundant again.

But what kind of thinking machine might find its own place in slow conversations over the centuries, mediated by land and water? What qualities would such a machine need to have? Or what if the thinking machine was not replacing any individual entity but was used as a concept to help understand the combination of human, natural, and technological activities that create the sea’s margin, and our response to it? The term social machine is currently used to describe endeavors that are purposeful interactions of people and machines—Wikipedia and the like—so the “landscape machine,” perhaps.

Ah yes, purposeful. The purpose of the solitary walker may be straightforward—to catch fish, to understand birds, or merely to get home safely before the tide comes in. But what if the purpose of the solitary walker is no more than a solitary walk—to find balance, to be at one with nature, to enrich the imagination, or to feed the soul. Now the walk becomes a conversation with the past, not directly through rocks and posts and water but through words, through the poetry of those who have experienced humanity through rocks and posts and water and found the words to pass that experience on. So the purpose of the solitary walker is to reinforce those very qualities that make the solitary walker a human being, in a shared humanity with other human beings. A challenge indeed for a thinking machine.

 
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