Finding a balance between fun and heft is tougher going than usual when it comes to this anthology of answers to John Brockman’s annual intellectual teaser
ONCE again, cultural wizard John Brockman has stirred up the intellectual waters with a provocative question, designed to tease the best out of intellectuals working in or around science and technology.
But this time, there’s a bit of a snag with the conceit. Brockman’s questions are usually studiedly general, from what scientific idea is ready to die to how is the internet changing the way you think. A key feature is the fun mashing and crashing of wildly disparate approaches and ideas from many, equal participants.
Here, however, the question is very specific: what to think about machines that think. So the major players in this field are in danger of unbalancing the rest because they are involved in (or have spent time thinking about) the hefty issues underlying such machines. In short, they are in danger of knowing whereof they speak.
So we have heavy hitters like roboticist Rodney Brooks, whose experience tells him to proceed cautiously with words like “think” because they are “suitcase words – words into which we pack many meanings so we can talk about complex issues in shorthand”. They can lead us into the kind of category error comparable to seeing “the rise of more efficient internal combustion engines and jumping to the conclusion… warp drives are just around the corner”.
Then there’s Stanislas Dehaene, a cognitive neuroscientist for whom we are two big problems away from thinking machines: global workspace (how the mammalian brain shares information contained in different parts of the brain), and theory of mind (circuits that help us represent other minds so we can understand and adapt to them). These are functions even a 1-year-old child possesses, he says, “yet our machines still lack”.
All good reality checks, but it’s a relief to turn to Joichi Ito, director of the MIT Media Lab, who has better things to worry about, in particular, the paradox that “while we’ve been developing machines that behave more and more like humans, we’ve been developing educational systems that push children to think like computers”. For Ito, thinking machines will obviate the need to train our children this way.
And given systems that alleviate our wants, we will be free to become superhumanly accomplished, tender and wise. Or something like that. But we already know that this won’t work. We are evolved organic beings, and have acquired an annoying habit: we conserve energy. We hanker after rest and security; when we find it, we settle down for a little nap. If we build machines that think, will we bother to think much? This is one of the big questions left hanging over Brockman’s excellent, if uneven, anthology.
“If we build machines that think, will we bother to think much? It’s one of the big questions left hanging”
Another is this: it is all very well to assume that our machines of loving grace (to steal a phrase from Richard Brautigan’s poem) will mean us no harm. But they have to notice us first. They have to recognise our intelligence.
(Image: Vincent Fournier/Gallerystock)
What To Think About Machines That Think: Today’s leading thinkers on the age of machine intelligence
This article appeared in print under the headline “Thinking about thinking”
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