What do you think about machines that think?

Thinking machines (a cymek and Erasmus) from t...
Thinking machines (a cymek and Erasmus) from the cover of Dune: The Machine Crusade (2003) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Edge question for this year was, “What do you think about machines that think?”  There are a lot of good responses, and some predictably inane ones.  Daniel Dennett gives a good write up on why the Singularity is overblown, and points out something that I’ve said myself, that the real danger isn’t artificial intelligence, but artificial stupidity.

Steven Pinker gives another excellent response, but I think the best one was given by theoretical physicist Sean Carroll.  I had some serious issues last year with Carroll’s response to the 2014 question of “What scientific idea is ready for retirement?”, where Carroll advocated ditching falsifiability.  My post taking issue with his response has been one of the most heavily visited ones that I’ve done.

Since I’m a fan of Carroll’s, I was pleased this year to see that, not only am I (almost) completely in agreement with his response, I find it the best of the ones I’ve read so far: We Are All Machines That Think.

Neuroscience, a much more challenging field and correspondingly not nearly as far along as physics, has nevertheless made enormous strides in connecting human thoughts and behaviors with specific actions in our brains. When asked for my thoughts about machines that think, I can’t help but reply: Hey, those are my friends you’re talking about. We are all machines that think, and the distinction between different types of machines is eroding.

(My only real beef with Carroll’s response is the verbiage immediately preceding this quote where he asserts that science has a complete understanding of the physics involved in everyday life, an assertion I find a bit hubristic, since we often don’t know what it is that we don’t know, the “unknown unknowns” in Rumsfeldian terminology.)

Although I agree with Carroll’s main contention, that we are evolved machines, I can see two objections people might make to the “thinking machines” concept, at least aside from the semantic quibbling about insisting that a “machine” is something humans build.

The first is to assert that there is a non-physical aspect to humans that machines will never be able to duplicate.  I’ve already done a post on why I think the mind is the brain.  The TL;DR is that the well known effects of brain damage and mind altering drugs, which can affect not only our physical coordination, but our memories, inclinations, and our most profound moral and intellectual decisions, leave little room for a non-physical aspect of mind.  As I admit in that earlier post, there is still logical space for a non-physical aspect to the mind, but it is rapidly shrinking as neuroscience advances, and already excludes many things that make us, us.

The second is to admit that the mind is the brain, but assert that the brain mechanisms are too complicated to ever be reproduced.  Perhaps mental processing happens at the base layer of reality, say the quantum layer, or perhaps some unknown lower layer.  While conceivable, there’s no real reason to think that at this point, except to find a way to cling to human exceptionalism.  While we have reasons to suspect that the brain uses quantum effects, we have no good reason to suppose that it uses them in any non “standard” way of how quantum physics are understood to work.

My personal view is that the “secret sauce” of mental processing probably happens at the level of neurons and synapses, with perhaps nuances coming from the molecular level, which might indeed be difficult to reproduce technologically, but far from impossible.  In any case, this is only a problem if someone is attempting to reproduce the exact way a human mind works, not if they are attempting to build something else with the same capabilities and capacities.

Will we ever have thinking engineered machines?  Depending on how you define “thinking”, we already do.  But even if you use a definition that includes consciousness or some other mental capability that machines don’t currently have, I don’t see any fundamental aspect of reality that would prevent it.  (Unlike, say, faster than light travel, which our understanding of physics currently makes unlikely.)  We might eventually discover some such fundamental limitation, but until we do, saying it’s impossible strikes me overly pessimistic (or, depending on your point of view, unrealistically optimistic).

The Edge question also mentions the “dangers” of AI that people periodically express anxiety over.  I’ve done numerous posts on this.  All I’ll say here is that we, as evolved survival machines, fear creating a superior survival machine, but most AIs will have primary purposes other than survival, such as navigation, analysis, construction, etc.  They’re as unlikely to accidentally become survival machines as my Sony PlayStation is to accidentally become a Garmin GPS.

What do you think of the Edge question?  Or the responses?

33 thoughts on “What do you think about machines that think?

  1. I’ve been getting into more and more discussions about artificial intelligence. At this point, we’re already surrounded by AIs. They’re on the Internet, they’re in our phones, they’re in our video game systems. Yet no one seems to worry that Siri is going to take over the world.

    We’ve even given AIs weapons and sent them off to fight the terrorists for us. And yet, I find it hard to believe that a Predator drone would decide to take over the world either.

    Real life AIs just don’t live up to the science fiction hype.


  2. I’m not worried about robots taking over the world, but I do have fears that we are getting lazier because of them. We hear of people doing stupid things because of their GPS systems. I have a hard time believing these stories:


    The stupider we get, the easier it is for the robots to take over the world, but it’s also less likely we’ll have the capacity to make the robots. Unless our rudimentary computers can somehow engage in a creative process and make themselves better and better.

    Don’t take that seriously. 🙂

    On the question of whether the mind is the brain, I’m still on the fence on that one. “Property dualism” as described in the comments of your post, “the mind is the brain”, is probably the belief I’m guided by in everyday life. Of course the mind is dependent on the brain, that’s evident by the things you’ve mentioned like head trauma, etc. I don’t really like dualism, though. Of course, dualism can be solved very quickly by simply saying the mind is the brain (or more paradoxically, vice versa, the brain constituted in the mind). Neither of these work for me completely. I’d say the debate continues.

    I think many accounts of the mind-brain problem fail to make sense of that 1st person account, and then it becomes a problem of deciding which version is correct, the “objective” account or the “subjective” (these words are in quotes because they pose all kinds of problems, but for a comment, I’ll let it slide). Our natural tendencies on the whole are to side with the “objective” account, but I worry we are leading ourselves astray in simply choosing one side over the other without giving it much thought. I don’t want to simply dismiss one kind of phenomena in favor of another without engaging in the original problem.

    Although, yes, it is MUCH easier and less problematic to just say the mind is the brain. It’s probably a more fruitful hypothesis too.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. It’s strange, but as you describe, I am a dualist, of a certain sort (although not a substance dualist). I’m not sure if it’s property dualism, but I can see the mind being a logical framework that exists as the relationships between the neurons and synapses of the brain, much as software is the relationship between capacitors, transistors, and magnetic storage of our computers. Because this is a type of dualism, I’ve had many skeptics fold their arms and declare it’s invalid because we might use the same word, “dualism”, as used in more supernatural aspects.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It’s an interesting idea. So then mind is the relationship between neurons? Which would make it in itself an immaterial thing but entirely dependent on the material, arising out of it? Or am I getting this wrong?


        1. I think you have it, at least in regards to how I see it. Of course, if the mind is the relationship between neurons and synapses (the connectome), or some other relationship in the physical structure of the brain, then it should be possible, someday, to reproduce that relationship outside of a human brain, a type of dualism.

          Oh, I forgot to respond to your interesting thoughts about objective and subjective. I think a lot depends on how we define those terms. It seems to me that the objective is simply reproducible or verifiable subjective experience. Everything that is objective is also subjective, but not the reverse.

          Are we being hasty by preferring the objective over the subjective? Given the last 400 years of science, I lean toward no. If I saw a ghost tonight, my first assumption would be that I was hallucinating (and in need of medical attention). Only if others could see it would I start to think that maybe there was something there. Of course, I’m a skeptic, so this goes to my worldview.


          1. Yes, very true about the meaning of objective…part of the reason I put those words in quotes was because I didn’t want to get into this whilst making the other point. I’m sure I wouldn’t have done it as simply and clearly as you have.

            We understand that objectivity is constituted in subjectivity. In cases like the ghost or other bizarre occurrences, the tendency is to go with objective because we recognize that we’re having an experience outside the norm and in this, we don’t want to rely on ourselves. That’s reasonable. But what do we do when then that 1st person account is an all-pervasive feeling like having a will? Or when it seems that just about everyone admits to having the same feeling, but such a thing is not admitted as a phenomenon of science’s study? Well some people (ahem…Sam Harris) might simply discount the so-called “subjective” for the “objective” or maybe we should say, they discount the 1st person felt experience in favor of the scientific object.

            I think with your theory we escape that strange and paradoxical decision.

            Sorry if this doesn’t make sense…I’m sort of bashing it out before my balance clinic appt.

            Liked by 1 person

          2. How did your MRI go? I didn’t get my results for a long while…but maybe things move faster where you live. Or do you have to wait until Friday?

            So I found out some bizarre things today. I don’t have a problem with my inner ear. I don’t have a problem with my eyes. They did a lot of strange tests on me (including inducing vertigo by squirting hot water into my ear…not cool). Then they did this test where they attached me to a computer and made me listen to knocking noises. Each time I heard the noises I had to lift my head up. Apparently I have a response delay on my right side that’s remarkably consistent and cause for concern. So now I’m going back to the neurologist for more tests. I’m turning out to be a curious case. This whole thing is so baffling to me. I almost want someone to just invent a name for it, just so I can say I know something.

            I’m sorry to hear you’re not feeling well. I wonder if it had something to do with going to get the MRI?


          3. The MRI itself went fine, although my shoulder started hurting toward the end, which at the time I attributed to just having to keep in the position they needed for 20-30 minutes. Afterward, it started hurting a lot more. It’s actually feeling pretty good today, which is weird. It’s almost like the MRI dislodged something that flowed out overnight.

            No results on the MRI yet. I keep checking the “test results” section of my account on their portal, but I suspect they won’t post the results until the orthopedist discusses them with me tomorrow.

            Sorry to hear they’re still trying to figure out your ailment. I’ve never had hot water squirted into my ear; sounds nasty. I did have cold water squirted in when I was a kid, and I don’t recall that being pleasant. Hope the neurologist can give you answers soon.


          4. I’m glad your shoulder is feeling better today. Wouldn’t that be strange if the MRI fixed it?

            I kind of figured that keeping still for that long might have been uncomfortable for you. When I got my MRI I had my head in an immobilizing contraption, but the whole time I worried about keeping still. My arm hurt like hell because they injected me with dye, but I couldn’t move it in a more comfortable position, so I spent the whole time thinking about how much I wanted to move it.

            Good luck tomorrow! I’m eager to hear how it turns out.

            Liked by 1 person

          5. The reason they gave is that they don’t have enough info yet for a plan of treatment. On the phone, they told me that the closeness of my humerus to the acromion was something of concern that they wanted to look at more carefully.

            Thinking about it since yesterday, I suspect they didn’t really find anything with the MRI (which might be good news I guess) and that they’re doing the CAT scan to look harder.

            So, looks like we both get to be curious cases 🙂


          6. I guess CT scans are better at detecting bone issues:


            Although it looked to me like MRIs can detect problems with bones as well, maybe just not as clearly?

            It looks like they can catch inflammation with an MRI. Hm. A curious case indeed! I sort of feel like interrogating your docs to find out why they chose to do a CT. Too bad that you have to wait even longer. It’s not fun, the waiting.

            I’m finding it’s not really fun being a curious case. I went to the balance clinic yesterday and they are treating me as if I have vestibular neuritis, but I have had two tests results that show I don’t have that, plus I don’t have true vertigo, which is a characteristic of VN. So this VN is not a diagnosis and I have everyone good and baffled now. The woman who ran the initial tests on me wouldn’t tell me what she thought a few days ago, so I googled my test results like crazy when I came home. I honed in on “vestibulospinal tract” issue (I spent about four hours reading tedious medical papers), but couldn’t find anything about treatment of this. Turns out, the woman who wouldn’t tell me what she thought had marked this as her suspicion. I couldn’t get any more information about the vestibulospinal tract from anyone. Everyone seemed reluctant to talk about it, and said, “We’ll cross that road later.” I guess I’ll just continue with the PT and see what happens. Oh well. At least I can feel somewhat proactive.

            Well, I have to say, it was much more fun googling your problem! 🙂 Good luck!

            (Also, if you can resist googling, I highly recommend it. I can’t say it did me any good, but I’m a terribly impatient person and I couldn’t help myself.)


          7. Thanks for the advice, but I’ve googled every miniscule thing about this the whole time it’s been going on. I’ve read more about shoulder impingement, rotator cuff injuries, frozen shoulder, arthritis, and just this week, calcific tendonitis, than I ever really wanted to know, including a lot of time reading pubmed and other scholarly sources. I’ve also already googled CT scans and read about all the radiation exposure 😦 But I have to admit that it never occurred to me to lookup a comparison between MRI and CT scans. Thanks!

            One interesting thing is that my shoulder seems to have improved slightly over the last week. (I’m cautious though, because I’ve had multiple periods of seeming improvement over the last two months that eventually turned out to be illusory.) While I was waiting to see the doctor, I started doing stretches from a book by a guy named Robin Mckenzie. It’s actually a subset of the previous PT routine I had been following, but without stretches that may have been doing more harm than good. I showed it to the doctor and he more or less blessed it with only a warning to stay away from any strength movements until we know better what we’re looking at.

            That really stinks with the vestibulospinal tract stuff. The medical industry always complains about people self diagnosing and medicating, but they often don’t communicate things. Frustrating. Hope they figure something out soon, or that the PT provides some relief.


          8. I feel so much better knowing I’m not the only health Googler. I was starting to feel a bit neurotic (which I suppose is better than neuritic. Maybe.)

            Now that you’re already Google-corrupted like I am, I’ll go ahead and ask: Do you think you know what they’ll find on the CT? Do you think you’ll have to do surgery? It’s got to be so tiresome to have to wait again to find out.

            Well it sounds like the stretches you’re doing won’t do any harm and they seem to be helping with the symptoms for now at least. And…deep breath…just a little while longer to go before the scan.

            Don’t you just hate those illusory improvements? I’ve had a lot of those too. I’m worried today might be one. I felt absolutely horrible yesterday after my first PT session and I went to bed at 8pm. Today has been great and I’m wondering if the PT could be working already. I could barely make it down the hall yesterday and today I walked over 2 miles. It’s crazy. I don’t quite trust it.

            I’m learning throughout this process that I need to formulate questions quickly, before I leave the office. Normally I just sit there sort of stupefied, then all the questions start rolling around in my head after I leave. Then I call to ask (and of course it’s always at the end of the day on a Friday). I still haven’t gotten a hold of the neurologist to ask my questions. I tried to ask questions to the people at the balance clinic, but they’re not really supposed to answer those kinds of questions, I guess. And you can tell they have something in mind, but just aren’t qualified to say. Yeah, it’s frustrating.

            Well good luck to you! I hope those exercises improve your condition and you don’t end up having to do anything more.


          9. I wish I knew what they’ll find with the CT, if anything. I suspect they didn’t find much with the MRI (it’s what happened last time it was MRI’d years ago) and that they’re doing the CT to be thorough, probably because of how impinged things looked in the initial x-ray.

            Glad to hear you’re feeling better. Best of luck for it continuing. I think it’s normal for PT progress to flow in a two steps forward one step back fashion, so don’t get too discouraged if there are setbacks, as long as the overall trend is in the right direction.

            Thanks, and best of luck to you too!

            Liked by 1 person

          10. But what do we do when then that 1st person account is an all-pervasive feeling like having a will? Or when it seems that just about everyone admits to having the same feeling, but such a thing is not admitted as a phenomenon of science’s study?

            I think the key here might be preponderance of evidence.

            When “enough” (for some definition of “enough”) people report the same subjective feeling, we begin to be justified in believing they are experiencing something “real” (for some definition of “real”).

            When just about everyone reports an identical (or similar) feeling (such as will), the preponderance weighs heavily in favor of there being something there. Of course, that something could be mass hallucination or a wired in human brain bias.

            This is the thing that gets me about religion. Just taking Christianity as a meme, how do we explain its success in billions of minds over 2000 years? Why does some form of religion seem to appear in every human civilization?


      2. …much as software is the relationship between capacitors, transistors, and magnetic storage of our computers.

        I’m not sure I quite agree with that specific statement (consider a mechanical computer), but I do agree with the general idea.

        You both seem to be talking about mind as an emergent property of the mechanism of the brain. An analogy is how thermodynamics is about statistics and collective behaviors of systems.

        Systems of relationships are very real things. A relationship of musical notes with time forms a melody. A relationship with multiple musical notes forms chords. Many things exist solely as non-physical relationships between physical objects. (I’ve heard the idea that quantum physics is strictly about relationships.)


        1. My reference to transistors and the rest were more examples of hardware than a comprehensive list, so I think we agree. If you had a mechanical computer, the software would be the relationship between its mechanical components; only the substrate would have changed.

          Completely agree on relationships. And ultimately, everything we care about boils down to emergent relationships, structure, patterns. And it may be emergence all the way down. It’s why I find the people who insist that X is an illusion (whether X is free will, consciousness, a table, etc) myopic, since ultimately it’s all an illusion.


          1. It’s a pretty fine point — and may depend on definitions of view points — but I’ve never seen software as a relationship between the physical components of the machine. I see it more as relationships of abstractions (think Turing Machine), but those abstractions are certainly reified in the machine — they have to be to be useful.

            I think we’re basically on the same page, though. It’s certainly about relationships between… stuff. 🙂

            If “time’s arrow” is based on entropy that suggests time itself is an emergent property (since thermodynamics is).

            Liked by 1 person

  3. I still think that there’s little benefit to an artificial intelligence that mimics the human mind/brain when AI in the weaker sense maybe lacks the breadth of human intellect, but has the potential to do specific tasks way more efficiently than humans. Why focus on making a machine that fills a function that humans are already able to do well (you know, think like humans) when you can find ways to make machines that fill functions humans can’t do? I know that sometimes the thing you study may seem trivial but what you learn from that study can be used elsewhere, but I’m not sure I see much use for human-thinking machines outside of a learning environment.


    1. Excellent point. It’s interesting that the AI research community is split between two factions. One (the much larger one) is just working on pragmatically useful AI, even if it’s not working like a human mind, the other is interested in creating an artificial mind. The first group is making lots of progress. The second has been struggling, and I suspect will continue to struggle until we understand the workings of the human mind much better than we currently do.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I’m pretty sure I won’t live long enough to see true (hard) AI, so… I guess I don’t actually care much one way or the other. As you know, I’m a spiritual dualist, and I have an abiding suspicion that mind and “soul” might be the same (or connected), and on that account I find it hard to believe a machine will ever be sapient.

    At least we will answer this question definitively eventually. Building a brain box that mimics the human brain function is just an engineering problem. As you say, there’s no physics prohibiting it, plus roughly 350,000 women create a new brain machine every day, so how hard can it really be? Nature does it, we have billions of examples, so we can do it, too.

    As an unrelated aside (and since comments are closed on your FTL post), I spent January making 60-some diagrams for a series of articles on Special Relativity I’m planning for March (Albert’s birthday). One output of the analysis I’ve been doing is finally fully understanding why FTL would violate causality. On that account, “warp drive” is almost certainly an impossibility. (So, for that matter, would be an “ansible.”)


    1. Looking forward to those posts. For me it came when I first understood the equations (which aren’t difficult in the case of special relativity) realizing that violating them would be like violating 1+1=2, and the sobering realization that nothing in nature has ever been observed to travel faster than light.


      1. Mos def! The Lorentz equations are pretty easy — nothing worse than square roots — and they absolutely reveal the problem of anything with mass getting up to c (opps: division by zero!) or of anything going faster (oops: square roots of negative numbers!).

        What I wanted to work out was the exact behavior of the “twins paradox” and of the “simultaneous” lightning flashes (an example Einstein himself used in his popular book, Relativity: The Special and General Theory). There’s also the one about the train going through a too-short tunnel and yet seeming to be entirely within the tunnel due to length contraction.

        The mind-bending part of all this is the requirement for symmetry — each frame can claim the other frame is the moving one, and the picture has to always remain consistant for that. For example, in the “twins paradox” both twins can claim the other is moving and, thus, it’s the other twin whose clock is running slower.

        Even more interesting, I hadn’t really thought about what it would be like to be the traveling twin. One doesn’t have any sense of ones clock running slower — relativity requires physics to be the same within the frame. What happens is that, from the spaceship’s point of view, the universe is speeding past, so the universe experiences length contraction in the direction of travel (and the universe appears to have the slow-running clock).

        That length contraction allows you to travel, for example, 6 LY at 0.5 c in only 10.4 years (a journey that appears to take 12 years from the outside). From the ship’s POV, that 6 LY looks like only 5.2! (At 0.5 c, your gamma is about 1.15.)


        1. I’ve actually struggled to understand the twin paradox myself. I was aware of everything you listed (the universe contracting along the direction of travel was mind blowing when I first understood it), but couldn’t make it work out to the expected outcomes when I tried in a spreadsheet. The scenario that threw me was if the the traveling twin stopped and stayed at the remote destination. I know it has something to do with their changing frame of reference, but I couldn’t see it.


          1. All will be made clear! 🙂

            You wanna really get your mind bent, consider the Earth as moving away from the traveling twin and then what happens if the Earth twin re-enters the frame of the traveling one (presumably by boarding a second spaceship). I’m still not entirely certain I’ve got that one right, but if I do, the first traveling twin can view the latter as still being younger. It’s…. really twisty.

            But, yes, once the (original) traveling Twin stops, thereby re-entering the frame of the other, that discontinuity is what breaks the symmetry. The paradox, in fact, involves three frames of reference: the Earth, the trip out, and the trip back.

            What’s fascinating is how, when you’re traveling away from the Earth, your coordinate system synchronizes you more and more with the Earth’s “past” (compared to what you think of as “right now”) — if an “ansible” worked, you’d be talking to the past. When you’re traveling towards the Earth, your coordinate system synchronizes you with the Earth’s “future” — less and less so as you get closer and closer such that, when you arrive, the difference is zero.

            It’s hard to explain in words, but the timespace diagrams make it really clear!

            Liked by 1 person

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