Daily Archives: January 23, 2018

What Computers Will Never Do

The Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence

Here is a reply from a computer scientist to my recent post about Ray Kurzweil‘s book. My brief reply is at the bottom.

There is a limit to computer intelligence arising from its database. Human beings require at least 18 years of experiences in order to learn the minimal requirements of an adult Homo sapiens. Moreover, they continue to learn throughout their lives, so that by the time they are our age, they’re just as brilliant as you and I are.

It is impossible to code a life experience into a computer database. To develop that life experience, a computer would have to live a human life. Moreover, it would have to do so with the emotional structures of a human being …

A computer in the future could probably store a life’s worth of such data, but how could it interpret it? The human brain regularly cleans out the meaningless crap of our daily lives … That’s what sleep is for — not resting our muscles but cleaning the garbage out of our minds. But how is a computer to know what to keep and what to throw away?

I think that Mr. Kurzweil is overly optimistic regarding the potential of computer technology. His direct comparison of computers to brains is erroneous. An automobile chassis with an engine is not the same thing as a pair of legs. A camera is not at all the same thing as the human eye. And a computer is not at all the same thing as a brain … [but] you’d never use a computer to decide whether to fall in love.

Technology will NEVER replace our biological faculties for certain tasks because those tasks will often be too closely tied to our entire biological processes to be taken over by technology. The most extreme example of this is provided by sexual interaction. I think we can all agree that the thought of making love to a robot is simply absurd …

Sure, there’s plenty of room for further advances … Yet few of these things will be anywhere near as revolutionary as the desktop computer and the smartphone were in their early years. Fewer people will rush out to buy the latest techie toy …

Nevertheless, I shall never have a deep conversation with any computer. Your philosophical musings on this blog will never be replaced by a computer’s thoughts. Computers will become smarter, but they’ll never be wise.

Brief Reflections

There is a lot to say about all this but here are a few thoughts. I’m not comfortable with saying machines will never be able to do this or that. A well-designed robot may not be a perfect human replica, but if it does what humans do it is similar enough for me to consider it conscious and worthy of moral and legal protection. In fact, good robots will probably be superior to us—think Mr. Data from Star Trek.

Kurzweil has an entire section on robot sex but let’s just say that it is easy enough to imagine having better sex if we are our partners were sexually upgraded. As for deep conversation, I’d prefer to converse with an AI rather than with most human beings. And I believe that minds can run on substrates besides carbon-based brains.

The University of Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom defines superintelligence as “an intellect that is much smarter than the best human brains in practically every field, including scientific creativity, general wisdom and social skills”.[1]  I don’t know whether we create such intelligence, or whether they will emerge on their own, but I think the survival of life on earth depends on intellectual enhancement. And, with oceans of time for future innovation almost anything is possible–including the emergence of superintelligence.

One thing I do know. If we have intelligent descendants, if they survive, and if science and technology continue to advance, the future will be unimaginably different from the past.

Computer Scientist’s Response

“I’m not comfortable with saying machines will never be able to do this or that.”

Well, yes, I’m just begging to be made a fool of with my comment. Perhaps I should constrain my statement a bit. How’s this version:

“Until computers can simulate the biochemical ties between brain and body, they’ll never be able to simulate humans.”

My thinking on this was powerfully influenced by Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain by Antonio R. Damasio. It presents the neurophysiological argument that the brain is inseparable from the body. There’s no such thing as “the mind-body problem” because they are a single system. Hence, replicating human cognition with silicon is rather like trying to build an airplane as if it were a bird, with flapping wings.

An airplane can go much faster and further than any bird, and it can carry a much heavier load, but it can’t land on a moving branch, take off in a fraction of a second, or show any of the maneuverability of a bird. In the same fashion, a computer can do a lot of things that people can’t do, but pursuing replication of human cognition is, In My Vainglorious Opinion, a fool’s errand.