2015 : WHAT DO YOU THINK ABOUT MACHINES THAT THINK?

Biological Anthropologist and Paleobiologist; Evan Pugh University Professor of Anthropology at The Pennsylvania State University
Welcome To The Next Phase Of Human Evolution

Asking what I think about thinking machines is like asking what I think about gravity. Thinking machines exist, and are the most recent developments of a human tradition that began over 5,000 years ago with the introduction of static external memory aids such as cuneiform tablets and quipu. These storage devices recorded mostly numerical information that supported routine decision-making. Over the centuries we developed more sophisticated and diverse objects and machines to undertake computation and store numerical and narrative information. We human beings are not only incessant communicators, but we have voracious appetites for "data." The introduction of binary code and its automation in computers made it possible for us to record, store, and manipulate all types of information, and we have continued to make technological advances in this realm in typical human fashion, that is, mostly hell-bent on novelty and oblivious to the consequences. We are ever more relying on thinking machines to store, translate, manipulate, and interrogate vast quantities of data. These devices are now supporting not-so-routine decision-making every day in medicine, law, and engineering, and are augmenting the creative processes of making music, writing poetry, and generating visual imagery. Raw combinatorial power allows modern thinking machines to learn from experience and, in the foreseeable future, this ability will be supported by human effort as the machines self-duplicate, mutate, establish ever-more complex networks of intercommunication, and eventually perform eugenics on themselves.

The same people who worry about thinking machines today were certain that the introduction of calculators 50 years ago would usher in an era of knuckle-dragging imbecility. That isn't what we have today, and it won't be what we have in the future. Thinking machines are liberating us from the banalities of routine data storage and manipulation, and are making it possible for us to enter a new phase of human evolution. Only real people with mushy gray-pink neuronal circuitry are able to undertake the quintessentially human activities of introspection and reflection upon the nature of existence. The dense and uneven networks of interconnecting neurons in our brains vary greatly from one person to another, and are remodeled from one thought-moment to the next so that no two individuals are ever alike, no day is ever the same, and no memory is ever recalled in the same way. By automating many routine physical and mental tasks, and reducing our need for laborious, recursive searching, machines that think are freeing us from much of the physical wear and tear and intellectual tedium of earlier phases of our history. We can now think much more what it means to think, to dream, to make jokes, and to cry. We can reflect on the meaning of the "human spirit," the origins of self-sacrifice, and the emergent qualities of thousands of people coming together to witness events, share each other's company, and celebrate a common humanity. These are not trivial superfluities, they are the essence of the human condition. Machines that think make it possible for more people to celebrate the joy of human intuitive insight, and to cultivate the equanimity that is unique to the self-controlled human mind.