Smart Machines

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November 14, 2007

Smart Machines

Recently, I got a email from the reader...

You are only about money, yes? You want to start a new company for research and development into AI technology.. For the money.

What else? How else could anyone be so ignorant of consciousness? It is money the blinds.

I searched my posts related to consciousness, but only uncovered this one on Will Machines Become Conscious?

We are naturally resistant to the idea that machines can think because of society, religion, or maybe our natural desire to be special--to be center of our universe. A good illustration is the AI effect, where people discount advances in AI as AI after they have been accomplished. "AI is whatever hasn't been done yet." Wikipedia sums up:

This change of perception can be traced to the mystery being removed from the system: that being able to trace the cause of events implies that it's a form of automation rather than intelligence. Michael Kearns suggests that "people subconsciously are trying to preserve for themselves some special role in the universe".[1]. By discounting artificial intelligence people can continue to feel unique and special.

This tendency occurs with our views of animals, women, and other races as well. Psychologists joke, that throughout history they have often tried to defined mankind as the "only animal that can..." feel, think, reason, plan, reflect, and so on--only to narrow their assertions in the wake of new evidence such as animals with human-like abilities like the sign language monkey or the super smart parrot. (We also know that children raised in the wild lose many of these same abilities).

A related effect has been noted in the history of animal cognition and in consciousness studies, where every time a capacity formerly thought as uniquely human is discovered in animals (e.g. the ability to make tools, or passing the mirror test), the overall importance of that capacity is deprecated.

I think, in order to make advances in technology such as producing smart software as I am doing, one must abandoned preconceived human-centric notions of the world.

I sometimes think that AI research in the large companies are compromised by coworkers and executives (who control funding and project goals) who fundamentally don't believe in computer intelligence. One female pioneer, who invented COBOL, was criticized for her attempt by an executive and warned that “computer programs could not understand English." Nowadays, it's companies diverting natural language research to search technology.

In order for Alan Turing to envision computing, he had to believe that a machine could think. It may have been easier for him to take such an outsider’s perspective because his homosexuality at the time was taboo and considered a mental illness. He may also had to contemplate that the mind was also machine. As Jenna Levin  illustrates in her book A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines, Turing had a controversial mechanistic view of the human mind: (Via Lispmeister)

The human mind can also be reduced to a machine. This idea drives all the others as he runs on grass, past trees, over bridges, through cattle. States of mind can be replaced by states of the machine. Human thought can be broken down into simple rules, instructions a machine can follow. Thought can be mechanized. The connection isn't perfectly clear, but it is there, the catalyst of a great crystal. It is not just that thought can be mechanized. It is mechanized. The brain is a machine. A biological machine. The idea cools him from head to toe, a wave of understanding washing clean his confusion, his muddled notions, and his breath. Shock feels like this: There is no sky or earth. No time, no meaning. It's a throb—a hard silence, a pulse. It is colorless, tasteless, senseless. A white-hot explosion[…]

At the age of twenty-three and for the rest of his life he embraces, without reservation, a mathematics that exists independently of us—although we, by contrast, do not live independently of it. We are biological machines…. bound to mathematics and mathematics is flawless. This has to be true.

While the above was a fictional example based on facts, we do have an AI pioneer, Marvin Minsky, who shares thoughts more explicitly on whether computers can think, understand or even be conscious; he even questions whether humans are self-aware.

But if mind is machine, where does that leave free will? Like another AI pioneer, John McCarthy, I am a compatibilist determinist, which I think all determinists really are anyway. I am a firm believer that free will is an illusion as is Scott Adams. One of my readers, after having lunch with me, asked if I believed in determinism as if he able to glean this from my many blogs posts. I hesistantly said yes, not wanting to stir up a debate. In fact, my very first college paper was on determinism for my English composition course; as if predetermined, another classmate also wrote on determinism but from a biochemical rather than physical angle.

The New York Times article, “Free Will: Now You Have It, Now You Don’t,” reported early this year of experiments suggesting conscious choice to be an illusion, even as some philosophers and physicists continue to disagree. The New Scientists also chimed in soon afterwards with “Free Will – you only think you have it.” Hofstadter has an interesting video, Victim of the Brain, containing thought experiments on identity, consciousness, and determinism.


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