Tuesday, January 20, 2015

The big question of the year is on ... the machines that think

No, not my question.  Though, I have obsessed enough over it, even right here in this blog.

It is Edge's annual event--the big question for the year.  For 2015, it is: What do you think about machines that think?

As always, it is an impressive lineup of thinkers who respond to that question.  The ideas there are way more than my limited understanding capacity can handle.  So, I picked my way through that intellectual smorgasbord.

I decided that I would read contributions from non-white males.  Why?  This is a field that has been the domain of white males.  Slowly females and other males are cracking through it all and, thus, I figured it might be interesting to read their perspectives.

Even that was one too many people.  I figured I would develop another filter based on the names that I read: there were two Marias and one Mary.  So, hey, responses by three Marys.  There was one Indian name; so, of course, yes to that.  And then one of my all-time favorite polymaths ever: Freeman Dyson.

I had a game plan.  I went in.

First up, the Indian, Satyajit Das, a "former banker."
I read his piece, re-read it, and wondered why he was in the lineup.  A rambling, broad, blah response.

Will Mary save me?
Nope. More blah!

I bet that this Maria will have something profound; after all, I have often read her blog-posts and they have always been insightful.
Thinking is not mere computation—it is also cognition and contemplation, which inevitably lead to imagination. Imagination is how we elevate the real toward the ideal, and this requires a moral framework of what is ideal. Morality is predicated on consciousness and on having a self-conscious inner life rich enough to contemplate the question of what is ideal.
The famous aphorism often attributed to Einstein—"imagination is more important than knowledge"—is thus only interesting because it exposes the real question worth contemplating: not that of artificial intelligence but that of artificial imagination.
Of course, imagination is always "artificial" in the sense of being concerned with the un-real or trans-real—of transcending reality to envision alternatives to it—and this requires a capacity for holding uncertainty. But the algorithms that drive machine computation thrive on goal-oriented executions, in which there is no room for uncertainty—"if this, then that" is the antithesis of the imagination, which lives in the unanswered and often, vitally, unanswerable realm of "what if?" As Hannah Arendt once wrote, to lose our capacity for asking such unanswerable questions would be to "lose not only the ability to produce those thought-things that we call works of art but also the capacity to ask all the answerable questions upon which every civilization is founded." 


Off to the other Maria then.  What does the Caltech professor has to say?
I for one, am more concerned about humans who drop thinking or are brainwashed, than smart thinking machines taking over.
I, too, worry about humans who are ready and willing to be brainwashed and do not care to think for themselves.  Go on, professor.
 I foresee the emergence of hybrid human-machine chimeras: human-born beings augmented with new machine abilities that enhance all or most of their human capacities, pleasures and psychological needs. To the point that thinking might be rendered irrelevant and strictly speaking unnecessary. That might provide the ordinary thinking humans a better set of servants they have been looking for in machines. 
Oh, no!  This is the kind of a scenario that worries me.

Finally, Freeman Dyson.  I can always count on him to be clear and direct.  No blah. No unnecessary qualifiers.  No hedging.  A wonderful thinker.  Will he let me down?  I hope not.

Turns out that Dyson had the shortest response of all, which I provide you in its entirety:
I do not believe that machines that think exist, or that they are likely to exist in the foreseeable future. If I am wrong, as I often am, any thoughts I might have about the question are irrelevant.
If I am right, then the whole question is irrelevant.
Awesome!  I knew that they guy would be direct.  Maybe two generations from now, we will find out Dyson was way wrong.  I don't care.  I love the way he clearly articulates his thoughts based on a remarkable knowledge-base.

Here's to hoping that "nature cannot be fooled."

By now, you know where this is from, right?


  1. I'm more worried about the person programming the robot than the robot. It can't think, it can only follow preset algorithms. The programmer can wreak all sorts of havoc, depending on his motivation. As long as we control the machines, we are in trouble.

  2. Indeed, the dumb-robot of today could be way more dangerous than the intelligent one of the future. Algorithms are already messing up with our lives ... as we discussed earlier at:


Posts popular the last 30 days