What Your Computer Can’t Know

Private Collection/Art Resource © 2014 C. Herscovici/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
René Magritte: Birth of the Idol, 1926

We are all beneficiaries of the revolution in computation and information technology—for example, I write this review using devices unimaginable when I was an undergraduate—but there remain enormous philosophical confusions about the correct interpretation of the technology. For example, one routinely reads that in exactly the same sense in which Garry Kasparov played and beat Anatoly Karpov in chess, the computer called Deep Blue played and beat Kasparov.

It should be obvious that this claim is suspect. In order for Kasparov to play and win, he has to be conscious that he is playing chess, and conscious of a thousand other things such as that he opened with pawn to K4 and that his queen is threatened by the knight. Deep Blue is conscious of none of these things because it is not conscious of anything at all. Why is consciousness so important? You cannot literally play chess or do much of anything else cognitive if you are totally disassociated from consciousness.

I am going to argue that both of the books under review are mistaken about the relations between consciousness, computation, information, cognition, and lots of other phenomena. So at the beginning, let me state their theses as strongly as I can. Luciano Floridi’s book, The 4th Revolution, is essentially a work of metaphysics: he claims that in its ultimate nature, reality consists of information. We all live in the “infosphere,” and we are all “inforgs” (information organisms). He summarizes his view as follows:

Minimally, infosphere denotes the whole informational environment constituted by all informational entities, their properties, interactions, processes, and mutual relations…. Maximally, infosphere is a concept that can also be used as synonymous with reality, once we interpret the latter informationally. In this case, the suggestion is that what is real is informational and what is informational is real.

Nick Bostrom’s book, Superintelligence, warns of the impending apocalypse. We will soon have intelligent computers, computers as intelligent as we are, and they will be followed by superintelligent computers vastly more intelligent that are quite likely to rise up and destroy us all. “This,” he tells us, “is quite possibly the most important and most daunting challenge humanity has ever faced.”

Floridi is announcing a completely new era. He sees himself as the successor to Copernicus, Darwin, and Freud, each of whom announced a revolution that transformed our self-conception into something more modest. Copernicus taught that we are not the center of the universe, Darwin that we are not God’s special creation, Freud that we are not even masters of our own minds, and Floridi that we are not the champions of information. He claims that the revolution in ICTs (information and communication technologies) shows that everything is information and that computers are much better at…

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