Matter Over Mind

There can be no doubt that high-speed electronic computers are starting to have a considerable impact on modern human society. Moreover, in future years our civilization may well be transformed almost beyond recognition, largely because of new developments in computer technology, many of which are under active consideration at the moment. There is one fundamental question, however, whose answer will determine the very nature of this transformation: Is the process of human thought itself the mere carrying out of a computation, or does human intelligence involve some ingredient that is in principle not possible to incorporate into the action of a computer, as we now understand that term? If all of our mental activity is indeed the effect of mere computation, albeit computation of undoubtedly stupendous complication, then eventually computers will be able to take over even those activities in our society that at present require genuine human intelligence—and our virtually inevitable fate is, in this view, that they will ultimately become our masters. If, on the other hand, our minds transcend the action of any computation in some essential way, no matter how complicated that computation might be, then we may expect that computers will always remain subservient.

There appears to be some tendency to regard the proponents of the different sides in this debate as being, respectively, “scientific” and “mystical.” Thus, if one is not prepared to go wholeheartedly in the direction of the “strong Artificial Intelligence” viewpoint (or strong AI, for short) that all human thinking, whether conscious or unconscious, is merely the enacting of some complicated computation, then one is in danger of being labeled “unscientific.” And once one has been browbeaten into accepting the strong AI view—no matter how reluctantly—one seems compelled to follow a route that the strong AI proponents have clearly laid out for us. As computers get faster, with bigger memory stores, and with more and more operations performed simultaneously, the moment will come when they will equal—and then race beyond—all human capacities. At that stage, humanity itself will have been superseded by its cleverest creations, the computer-controlled robots, and we shall be forced to surrender our superiority to them.

In his recent book, Mind Children, Hans Moravec, who is the Director of the Mobile Robot Laboratory of Carnegie Mellon University, sets before us his vision of what he considers to be, indeed, “The Future of Robot and Human Intelligence.” Moravec wastes no time considering the possibility that there might actually be alternatives to the strong AI viewpoint, and regards it as almost a foregone conclusion that what we do with our brains when we think is of necessity something that a modern computer could do, given an appropriate increase in computer power and capacity. Though the increases that he considers to be necessary might seem to the uninitiated formidably large (namely a thousandfold increase over the most powerful computers that exist today, and a millionfold increase in computer power over that which can be achieved by …

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