A.I. Is Forced to Accept Its Limitations

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A.I. Is Forced to Accept Its Limitations

For six decades, science fiction writers and A.I. researchers have looked ahead to an era in which thinking, conscious “electronic brains” reside within computers. In this fantastic world, the primary fear is that malevolent human-like personality traits will emerge to supersede the altruism programmed into the machines.
We were told that “soon” the limitations of processing power and software sophistication would be overcome. Consciousness would emerge from unconsciousness.

Nevertheless, despite billions of dollars, thousands of man-years, and a several million-fold increase in raw computing power, we are little, if any, closer to building machines that “think” than we were when theorists like Norbert Wiener, Alan Turing, and John von Neumann started examining the problem. Today’s computers are great for word processing, number crunching, and displaying multimedia content, but they don’t appear to be any closer to thinking than ENIAC. So, what’s wrong? Why don’t we have more to show for all this effort?

In a recent MIT Technology Review1 essay, David Gelernter, a Yale University professor of computer science and a fellow of the American Enterprise Institute, addresses whether it’s actually possible to “build a mind out of software,” and if so, what sort of mind it would be. It is the question about the ultimate limits of technology. And, it is also a question about the nature of consciousness.

Much of this discussion hinges on our understanding of consciousness; what does it mean to create conscious mind and how does this differ from a simulated unconscious intelligence? As Gelernter explains, many elements of what we call intelligence might be successfully simulated with faster computers and better software. However, we actually have no practical or theoretical basis on which to construct consciousness as we understand it. Barring a totally unforeseen breakthrough, such a technology lies far in the future, if it is possible at all. On the other hand, an unconscious artificial intelligence imitating human behavior to an outside observer can probably be built. However, as Gelernter observes, even that invention won’t emerge until much further in the future than most people believe.

So what makes machine intelligence such a big hurdle? As anyone who owns a computer knows, they are great calculator and storage devices. Nevertheless, they appear to be abysmally stupid. That’s because they can only do what you tell them to do within the context of what some programmer has already anticipated for them to do...

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