Human And Artificial Thought
Edge, July 2010
Edited by Andy Ross
The net is a complex collection of computers (like brain cells) that are
densely interconnected (as brain cells are). It grows at many million points
simultaneously, like a living organism. It's only natural to wonder whether
the internet will one day start to think for itself.
more powerful all the time. Today, programs that are guided not just by
calculations but by good guesses are important throughout the software
landscape. Computers not only dump huge quantities of information into the
cybersphere every day but also help us evaluate this information
Thinking is not the same as reasoning. When you look
out the window and let your mind wander, you are still thinking. This sort
of free association is part of human thought. No computer will be able to
think like a man unless it can free-associate.
It is wrong to say
that reality is on the outside but your mental landscape is inside your
head. Every day we hallucinate when we fall asleep and dream. And when you
hallucinate, your own mind redefines reality for you. No computer will be
able to think like a man unless it can hallucinate.
The thinker and
the thought are inseparable. The computationalist view of the mind is that
thinking is viewing a stream of thoughts, so we can replace the human
thinker by a computer thinker without stopping the show. But when a person
is dreaming or hallucinating, the thinker inhabits his thoughts. No computer
will be able to think like a man unless it, too, can disappear into its own
In human thought, the mind moves back and forth along a
spectrum defined by ordinary logic at one end and "dream logic" at the
other. Dream logic makes just as much sense as ordinary "day logic" but
follows different rules. Most philosophers and cognitive scientists see only
day logic and ignore dream logic, which is like imagining the earth with a
north pole but no south pole.
In a simple, common-sense view of
thought, we begin with focus or attention or alertness. We are alert when we
are rested and wide awake. As we grow tired, our focus or alertness
declines. To solve analytical or mathematical problems, to think acutely or
logically, we must be alert. In a state of low alertness, our thoughts tend
to move by themselves with no conscious direction from us.
come near to falling asleep, you will find thoughts flowing through your
mind without conscious guidance. In this state of free association, each new
thought resembles or overlaps or somehow connects to the previous thought.
As our alertness continues to fall, we lose contact with external reality.
Eventually we sleep and dream.
The level of focus or alertness is
basic to human thought. Each person's focus moves during the day between
maximum and minimum. Your focus is maximum when you are wide awake. It
reaches a minimum when you are asleep. This cognitive spectrum is the basic
fact of human thought.
Why and how do you lose touch with reality as
you fall asleep and dream? Your mind stores memories. Each remembered
experience is a potential or alternate reality. Remembering such experiences
in the ordinary sense is inspecting the memory from outside. But sometimes
remembering means realizing the potential reality trapped in the memory.
Just as thinking works differently at the top and bottom of the
cognitive spectrum, remembering works differently too. At the high-focus
end, remembering means inspecting the memory. At the low-focus end,
remembering means realizing it. When we re-experience memories in dreams,
they may be distorted or merged following dream logic.
focus is high, you control you thoughts. You confront problems and solve
them rationally. As your focus level falls, you begin to lose control of
your thinking. Your mind wanders. When you look out a window and let your
mind drift, your thoughts take their own course. As your focus level falls
still lower, your thought stream moves completely beyond conscious control.
And when you fall asleep, your dreams seem to happen without conscious
guidance. You experience dreams in nearly the same way you experience
Losing control of your thought stream equals losing
reality. When you sleep and dream, your thoughts are beyond conscious
control and reality is gone. Poets and madmen haunt this mental
We all move down the cognitive spectrum every day. But
some people are more alive to this experience than others.
Creativity is fascinating. Cognitive psychologists generally agree that
creativity happens when a new analogy is invented. Most new analogies lead
nowhere, but occasionally they reveal something important. Only when your
thoughts have started to drift is creativity possible. We find creative
solutions to a problem when it lingers at the back of our minds.
Often, remembered and re-experienced emotions are the key to novel,
unexpected analogies. Emotion summarizes experience. Emotion is the music
that accompanies life. Just as a snatch of music might bring to mind some
long-ago scene, a re-experienced emotion can make us remember a different
time and place.
But here the analogy breaks down. A song or phrase
might be associated purely by accident with a certain experience. But an
emotion is caused by the experience, and summarizes in one feeling an
entire, complex scene. An emotion encodes an experience.
entities, consciousness and memory. Each corresponds to certain physical
structures in the human body. But we are interested in the piano sonata, not
the piano. The sonata's structure is a virtual structure. The piano has its
own structure. Our topic is the sonata of thought, not the piano of the
We can picture the tidal process of human thought in terms of
consciousness and memory. Imagine a small circle inside a bigger one. At
maximum focus, memory (the small circle) is wholly contained within
consciousness (the large one). Consciousness is surrounded in turn by
external reality. You are conscious of memory within you and reality outside
you. At minimum focus, consciousness is the small circle, wholly surrounded
by memory. Memory comes between consciousness and external reality. You are
conscious only of internal, imaginary reality. This is the daily, tidal
rhythm of the human mind.
Intelligence can only mean human or
human-like intelligence. Some people believe that the internet will develop
an entirely new form of intelligence. But this is meaningless. If your new
form of intelligence is human-like, it's not new. If it isn't human-like,
it's not intelligence.
Human-like intelligence cannot emerge on the
internet because the raw materials are wrong. A scientist must assume that
consciousness results from a certain structure, just as photosynthesis
results from the chemistry of plants. Computers are made of the wrong stuff
for photosynthesis and the wrong stuff for consciousness.
consciousness and thought emerged from a mechanism that allowed endless,
nuanced variations to be tested. Neither condition holds on the internet as
we know it.
As far as we know, there is no way to achieve
consciousness on a computer or any collection of computers. However, the
cognitive spectrum, once we understand its operation and fill in the
details, is a guide to the construction of simulated or artificial thought.
We can build software models of consciousness and memory, and then set them
in rhythmic motion.
The result would be a computer that seems to
think. It would be a zombie. But that would make no practical difference.
The computer would converse and solve problems just as a man would.
There can be no cognitive spectrum without emotion. Emotion becomes an
increasingly important bridge between thoughts as focus drops and
re-experiencing replaces recall. Computers have always seemed like good
models of the human brain. But emotions are produced by brain and body
One day artificial thought will be achieved. Even
then, an artificially intelligent computer will experience nothing and be
aware of nothing.
AR I think this is a good
analysis but I disagree with the conclusions. With a focus mechanism, a
suitable sensitivity to physical instantiation (for emotions, via feelings,
as I argue in my new book G.O.D. Is
Great), and some good
pico-engineering, nonhuman machines will probably become as experientially aware as we are.