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Plug and Play

April 2, 2009

A day off today – didn’t get to the rest of the Alex review yet (due to a case last night of cognac vs. me).  Did want to post this from the New York Times yesterday.  The usual about “Man’s brain is too super and energy efficient to be duplicated,” and as is so often the case on the net, the comments were better than the article.  Here are the best two:

Another common fallacy in brain vs. computer discussions is a narrow definition of “computer” based on the computers we currently see in everyday life. But the range of possible computer architectures is as vast as the range of possible animals, and we have only just started making them.

So saying that no computer could ever think is like examining a pig and concluding that no animal could ever fly. Pigs, no. Birds and bees and butterflies, yes.  And suggesting that we don’t need thinking computers because brains are easy to produce, is like suggesting that we don’t need airplanes because we already have plenty of birds.

Flight once seemed as magical as thought. But once we understood that birds were not supernatural, airplanes became inevitable. Understanding that our thoughts are not supernatural will lead just as surely to computers who think.

And this one:

You’re making a common mistake of confusing the idea that computers will be able to think, with the idea that they will think exactly the way that human brains do.

I can never understand why people insist on this particular interpretation, which is really not what Kurzweil or others have claimed to begin with.  To transform the claim into “Computers are exactly like human brains and will think exactly like them” makes your rebutal of it very easy, but it’s not what the claim was.

Noam Chomsky was once asked about all this in a lecture I attended at Berkeley. He responded that when submarines were invented, we didn’t spend a lot of time obsessing over the question of whether they swim exactly like fish do. Similarly with airplanes, he went on, we don’t worry about whether it’s flight “like a bird”, or just flight. We do consider the similarities, I would add, but only to the point where it’s useful to learn how to imitate the aspects of flight that birds have mastered and to transfer these to airplanes. However the philisophical questions do not worry us.

My point, and Chomsky’s, is that the philisophical obsession with whether computers are brain-like is really based on fear, a kind of modern day Copernican assault on our primacy. Again.

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