Will Computers Ever Really Be Conscious and Intelligent?

Philosopher John Searle thinks not.


And literary critic Stanley Fish, writing in the New York Times, appears to agree with Searle, offering the following as a key distinction between himself and a computer:

[I]ts procedures do not track my practice. I am not self-consciously generating a pattern of statistical frequencies. I am producing words that have been chosen because they contribute to the realization of a governing idea or a compositional plan. In fact, to say that the computer is wrong  is to give it more credit than it deserves; for right and wrong are not what it does; what it does is count (faster than I or anyone else could) and match. What it doesn’t do is begin with an awareness of a situation and an overall purpose and look around for likely courses of action within that awareness. That is because, as the philosopher Hubert Dreyfus explained almost 40 years ago,  a “computer is not in a situation” (“What Computers Can’t Do”); it has no holistic sense of context and no ability to survey  possibilities from a contextual perspective; it doesn’t begin with  what Wittgenstein terms a “form of life,”  but must build up a form of life, a world, from the only thing it has and is, “bits of context-free, completely determinate data.” And since the data, no matter how large in quantity, can never add up to a context  and will always remain discrete bits, the world can never be built.

What most strikes me in Fish’s observation is this: human beings are always in a situation. That’s the foundation for every gesture of storytelling, and it’s also what makes us human (and not computers).

Here’s some more from Fish:

[W]e  don’t walk around putting discrete items together until they add up to a context; we walk around with a contextual sense — a sense of where we are and what’s at stake and what our resources are — already in place; we  inhabit worldly spaces already organized by purposes, projects and expectations. The computer inhabits nothing and has no purposes and because it has no purposes it cannot alter its present (wholly predetermined) “behavior” when it  fails to advance the purposes it doesn’t have. When as human beings we determine that  “the data coming in make no sense”  relative to what we want to do, we can, Dreyfus explains “try a new total hypothesis,” begin afresh. A computer, in contrast, “could at best be programmed to try out a series of hypotheses to see which best fit the fixed data.”

This is why I would say that Aristotle’s notion of telos as a reason for why things happen in the world is still a relevant concept—at least when it comes to humans. We have beliefs, make choices, and have purposes that (at least appear to) transcend the processes of determinate things like computers (and the rest of the universe at large).

Maybe we really are de trop in the sense of being something excessivegreater than the sum of the universe’s determinate parts; free souls coming from God, who is our home (to echo Wordsworth’s Ode: Intimations of Immortality, lines 58-71):

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:

The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,

Hath had elsewhere its setting,

And cometh from afar:

Not in entire forgetfulness,

And not in utter nakedness,

But trailing clouds of glory do we come

From God, who is our home:

Heaven lies about us in our infancy!

Shades of the prison-house begin to close

Upon the growing Boy,

But He

Beholds the light, and whence it flows,

He sees it in his joy; […]

Presumably, no computer will ever consciously see or experience anything, let alone joy.

So why are we here?

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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2 Responses to Will Computers Ever Really Be Conscious and Intelligent?

  1. As someone who teaches a range of basic courses in the history and philosophy of science, the Chinese Room is one of my favorite little examples of the power of a thought experiment. It’s so simple and yet elegantly challenges the technological hubris floating around in our so-called information age. Love that short video!

  2. Josh W says:

    This thought experiment puts a cheeky twist on the fact that any computer program is based on logical algebra originally designed to be done on paper. In other words, whatever a computer can do, a person can do with a pencil if you give them long enough and get them to follow enough error checking rules.

    It’s devious because we think of a computer as a box, not as a formal system implemented by that box.

    I think the other solution is way more interesting: If we have a book of instructions that can orient to an environment, pass the turing test etc, then a person implementing that book could reasonably be said to have a double-decker consciousness.

    We cannot imagine this possibility, that the man and his book of instructions (which would incidentally require not just a book but some blank paper, the memory of the AI formal system) could simultaneously hold two positions and sets of opinions on the world:

    The one’s held by the man in his head and acted on normally, and those held by him in the blank paper and the book, and expressed exclusively through chinese conversation.

    That is why it’s a trick, it tricks us into thinking that the intelligence is already accounted for in the example thus dodging the question entirely. We say “where’s the consciousness here? Oh obviously it must be the man, but he doesn’t know what he is saying, therefore the writing and the consciousness are separate.”

    But, to risk rubbing it in too much, the question isn’t whether the man knows what is going on, the question is whether the paperwork system he is implementing knows what is going on, whether it actually can consider the responses it receives.

    Once you can imagine the possibility that it could, very slowly, over thousands of “turn to page 26”, “turn to page 1000057”, build it’s own response to an insult based on how happy it’s feeling, and how it’s been treated in the past (recorded on reams of paper with it’s own special filing system), even as the person running it experiences only profound boredom and dedication, then the question becomes once again about how subtle and complex a system must be to have real opinions and awareness, and how it must relate to the world.

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