The Myth Of Artificial Intelligence


The philosopher John Searle has explored the concept of using the human brain as a model for computer intelligence and holds that it is based on a false premise. It is “one of the worst mistakes in cognitive science,” he has written, to “suppose that in the sense in which computers are used to process information, brains also process information.” You ma v be able to make a computer model of, say, what goes on when you see a car speeding toward you, just as you can make a computer model of the weather or digestion, but you won’t be re-creating your actual reaction to that car, which is a matter of biochemistry, any more than you recreate the weather or digestion. “To confuse these events and processes with formal symbol manipulation is to confuse the reality with the model.” To put it another way, asking how our brain computes its reaction to the car is like asking how a nail computes the distance it will travel when you hammer it. Searle adds a simple but devastating observation: “If we are to suppose that the brain is a digital computer, we are still faced with the question, ‘And who is the user?’”

People will go on making computers smarter and smarter and in more and more subtle ways. They will also go on dreaming about making them into perfected versions of us. The inventor Ray Kurzweil published a very popular book in 1999 titled The Age of Spiritual Machines in which he predicted—mainly on the basis of the dubious assumption that computing power must grow exponentially forever—“the emergence in the early twenty-first century of a new form of intelligence on Earth that can compete with, and ultimately significantly exceed, human intelligence. …” This will be “a development of greater import than any of the events that have shaped human history.” Why the enduring hope for this Frankenstein monster? There has probably never been a time when people didn’t imagine making a human being by other than the usual means. The Promethean urge is likely as old as humankind, and at its heart it has never had much to do with actual science or technology. That’s why the best definition of the held of artificial intelligence may be the one that one of its pioneers, Russell Beale, once gave as a joke. It is, he said, “the attempt to get real machines to behave like the ones in the movies.”