Creativity: the mind, machines and mathematics

Having one of those nice quiet weekends where I get to catch up on some reading and a few webcasts! Came across this really interesting debate entitled the mind, machines and mathematics. The event was held last November on the 70th Anniversary of Alan Turing’s1 seminal paper “On Computable Numbers“. The purpose of the debate was to discuss the question: “Can we build super intelligent machines or are we limited to building super intelligent zombies?“.


Photo: Donna Coveney. From left Ray Kurzweil, Rodney Brooks and David Gelertner

The participants in the debate are David Gelernter, Professor of Computer Science at Yale, and Ray Kurzweil, a prodigious inventor and author of “The age of intelligent machines”. The debate is moderated by Rodney Brooks, the director of MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory.

Kurzweil takes the position that machines will achieve a level of human intelligence, whilst Gelernter takes the opposite anti-cognitivist stand point. I guess it’s not surprising that the key point of contention was defining consciousness, or actually whether it could be defined.

For example, Kurzweil makes the point that: “there is no consciousness detector that we can imagine creating … that doesn’t have some philosophical assumptions built into it.” to which Gelertner insists, perhaps rightly, that “you can’t possibly understand the human mind if you dont understand consciousness“. Listening to them argue about consciousness I chuckled as I was reminded immediately of a passage from the beginning of Dennett’s Consciousness Explained, which I plucked off my bookshelf and have transcribed parts of it here ( taken from the opening couple of pages of Chapter two: Explaining Consciousness):

Human consciousness is just about the last surviving mystery …There have been other great mysteries: the mystery of origin of the universe, the mystery of life and reproduction, the mystery of time, space and gravity. These were not just areas of scientific ignorance, but of utter bafflement and wonder. We do not yet have the final answers to any of the questions of cosmology and particle physics, molecular genetics and evolutionary theory but we do know how to think about them. The mysteries haven’t vanished, but they have been tamed … we know how to tell the misbegotten questions from the right questions, and even if we turn out to be dead wrong about some of the currently accepted answers, we know how to go about looking for better answers.

With consciousness, however, we are still in a terrible muddle. Consciousness stands alone today as a topic that often leaves even the most sophisticated thinkers tongue-tied and confused. And, as with all the earlier mysteries, there are many who insist – and hope – that there will never be a demystification of consciousness.

Dennett’s book is a wonderful read but its one of those texts that you have to persevere with since it can be fairly inaccessible, lets face it he combines psychology, philosophy, neuroscience along with many other areas of research so its small wonder some readers struggle with it. In fact I vividly recall one of the undergraduates on my AI course, years ago, who grew rather frustrated with it describing it as a head fuck. Which may not be entirely unfair …. anyway I digress … 🙂

During the debate Gelernter goes on to argue that building a conscious mind “out of software seems to be virtually impossible“, since software by definition can be taken from one computer to another, “peeled off“, can be ported from one platform to another and run in a “logically identical way on any computing platform“, but “the mind cannot be ported to any other platform or even to an instance of the same platform“, and whilst consciousness is an emergent property running hugely complex programs with billions or trillions of processes but there is no reason to believe that consciousness would or even could emerge.

Kurzweil, rather optimistically perhaps, went to point out that “that’s because were thinking of software as it is today“, since information technology is expanding exponentially and continuing research into the human brain is revealing more about brain chemistry and neural functions. I guess the point he wanted to make was that a biological brain shifting chemicals around isn’t really that dissimilar to a computer that shifts symbols? Which is a pretty valid point since Gelernter also stated that “we don’t have the right to dismiss our of hand the role the chemical makeup of the brain plays in creating the emergent property of consciousness“.

Invariably any discussion on consciousness leads to the question of spirituality, which Gelernter defined as a “thirst for the living God” and he asks, and answers, the equally inevitable question, “can we build a robot with a physical need for a non -physical thing? maybe but don’t count on it. And forget software.

I did laugh out loud when Gelernter offers an answer to the question whether super intelligent conscious machines are desireable?

I think it’s desirable to learn about every part of a human being. But assembling a complete artificial human being is a different project. We might easily reach a state someday where we prefer the company of a robot from walmarts to our next door neighbours … but its sad that in a world where we tend to view such a large proportion of our fellow human beings as useless we are so hot to build new ones! In a western world that no longer cares to have children at the replacement rate we cant wait to make artificial humans – believe it or not but if we want more complete fully functional people we can have them right now, all natural ones, consult me afterwards and I’ll let you know how its done

I could provide a blow by blow account of the entire debate, but I won’t 😉 I think you should watch it,enjoy it for yourselves, and form your own opinions. What I will say though is that It’s a wonderful little debate and the speakers are both engaging and seem to endeavour to inject a fair amount of humour into it which makes this a really entertaining and informative discussion to watch.

  1. AlanTuring.net, http://www.alanturing.net[back]