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Monday, March 22, 2010

Artificial intelligence: Robots that think like humans?


This post is, in part, taken from an upcoming book of mine called Beyond the Frontiers of Human Intelligence

Within the next few decades having a robot psychologist will become popular predicts futurist James Canton (2007). Computers will be capable of making diagnoses of mental problems and issues of well-being. Others have predicted that robots will eventually be better at this than trained psychologists. This is important, because it suggests that robots will be conscious in some way similar to the way human beings are. Personally, I doubt this is going to happen any time in the foreseeable future. Why?

Canton is probably correct that computers will be able to diagnose many psychological problems, and even prescribe courses of treatment and medication. They will probably assume a certain segment of the work of psychologists. However they will not assume it all. How many people will want to sit in front of a machine for fifty minutes pouring their heart out? And how might that same machine detect the depths of the human psyche?

My conviction is that it simply will not be able to, because the robot shrink will be intelligent, but not conscious; at least not in the foreseeable future. Here lies the key distinction that I wish to make, and the one that many thinkers in the Artificial Intelligence (AI) field crucially fail to recognise.
It is one thing to say that computers are like brains, but are brains like computers?

Much of modern cognitive science is dominated by the computer metaphor. Brains can calculate and simulate and modulate. But just how much like a human mind is a computer? Could a computer ever really be said to be intelligent in the way that a person is? Could we ever empathise with such a “mind”? And if not, does it really matter?

The entire field of artificial intelligence is centered on this goal, this belief. Many, like futurists Ray Kurzweil, James Canton, and James Martin are convinced that not only will computers be intelligent like humans, they will soon be a hell of a lot more intelligent, including in non-human-like ways. The moment when computers surpass human intelligence and become the smartest thing on the planet is what Kurzweil calls “the Singularity”. If it occurs, it will be a defining moment in ‘evolution’ on this planet.

Artificial intelligence is not something to be dismissed lightly, simply because it seems incredible. The limits of computing technology are unknown, but undoubtedly vast, perhaps incomprehensible. AI optimist Ray Kuzweil points out the following staggering comparison between the human brain and an equivalent sized computer. optimally organized 2.2-pound computer using reversible logic gates has about 10-25 atoms and can store about 10-27 bits. Just considering electromagnetic interactions between the particles, there are at least 10¬15 state changes per bit per second that can be harnessed for computation, resulting in about 10-42 calculations per second in the ultimate “cold” 2.2-pound computer. This is about 10-16 times more powerful than all biological brains today. If we allow our ultimate computer to get hot, we can increase this further by as much as 10-8¬fold. And we obviously won’t restrict our computational resources to one kilogram of matter but will ultimately deploy a significant fraction of the matter and energy on the Earth and in the solar system and then spread out from there (Kurzweil 2005 p 434).

And just in case you are not feeling threatened, futurist James Martin believes that the intelligence of computers will barely resemble that of humans. And they will be vastly more intelligent. He writes:

…the true computer revolution is yet to come – with ubiquitous censors, nanotechnology, global data warehouses and totally pervasive access to networks of extreme bandwidth. The main reason the true computer revolution is ahead of us is that machines will become intelligent. …Computers can be immensely more powerful than the human brain because their circuits are millions of times faster than the neurons and axons of the brain, and they can be designed to perform specific types of “thought” with great efficiency. Such computing will become an infrastructure that is everywhere, like the air we breathe, affecting almost every activity of humankind. (Martin 2007: 207).

Martin’s conclusion that computers will be everywhere is a logical extrapolation drawn from current trends in computing. There is undoubtedly strong demand from the general populace, small businesses, corporations, education, institutions and governments to use them, so he is very likely correct.

Yet this does not change the fact that many of the arguments of AI proponents are deeply flawed. Consciousness and intelligence are fundamentally different concepts, as I shall argue in a post here on 22C+, later this week.


Ray Kurzweil, The Singularity is Near. Penguin, 2005
James Canton, The Extreme Future. Plume, 2007
James Martin, The Meaning of the Twenty-first Century. Riverhead, 2007


  1. Part of the problem is that the rational/materialist paradigm which people like Canton and Kurzweil adhere to is also very limited philosophically. If you limit the discussion to epistemology, then certainly computers will be able (are already able) to obtain and process vast quantities of data.

    But the distinction between data and information lies outside the field of epistemology, in ontology. Even as relatively simple a living thing as a mouse or a bird has intentionality, where a machine only has functionality - not the same thing at all. (See Brentano, Heidegger, Sartre etc.)

    This quality is inherent not in our brains, but in the very fiber of our beings - and it's one reason why the "disembodied brain" model of consciousness and experience propounded by the materialist/reductionist lobby seems to leave out so much of what really matters to us in our lives.

  2. I agree completely, Simon. Mechanistic science cannot account for the human will (intentionality), so tries to explain it away, often with absurd results. I recall a diagram I saw in a psychology text book which analyzed the physiology of a baseball player striking a ball. It literally began with "The signal from the brain tells the man to lift the bat". This bizarre blindspot represents a false presupposition and foundational error which underpins the entire discourse of mind science in the modern era.