2015 : WHAT DO YOU THINK ABOUT MACHINES THAT THINK?

Horace D. Taft Associate Professor of Physics, Yale University
Any Questions?

Let’s be generous and give machines the ability to think, at least in our imaginations. As thinkers ourselves, we ought to be able to manage this. With any new category of thinkers on the scene I'd be mainly curious about one thing: what are their questions?

Machines are usually faster and more capable than humans when it comes to running algorithms and finding correlations in data. They have been put to use solving problems for every branch of science and social science. They are strengthening their foothold in the humanities in ways beyond telling us how often writer X used word Y and with what typical words in proximity, once fed the text. But our limitations in terms of generating new knowledge are as much about asking the right questions as they are about more efficiently solving established and well-framed puzzles.

The challenges in my field of particle physics are a blend of physics and philosophy. Our current suite of measurements give answers so unlikely that some have started to imagine us in only one universe among many, thinking that with so many universes one is bound to have a few with the unlikely physical constants that we find in ours. The philosophy creeps in with the very meaning of "unlikely". And with all of our progress solving problems, we are still facing the mysteries of dark energy and dark matter that leave 96% of the matter-energy content of the universe outside of our current theories. Is there a framework beyond relativistic quantum field theory to describe the laws of nature at the extremes of small sizes and high speeds? Is our current understanding of a fundamental particle just fundamentally insufficient?

Machines have already helped us ask better questions. Their appetites for data have enabled us to dream of confronting our environment in new ways. But if machines could think, what could they wonder about the universe? How would they approach understanding it? I bet there would be ways that humans could contribute to their questions' answers. Our brains are, after all, fantastic machines.