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Computers Are No Smarter Than Tinkertoys

Philosopher: You may as well believe that Penn and Teller really do magic

Philosopher Ed Feser wrote a great post recently on why it is irrational to believe that artificial intelligence is really intelligent. He begins with Arthur C. Clarke’s famous observation that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Clarke’s assertion, he points out, can be taken two ways: people can be fooled into thinking that advanced technology is magic and, as a metaphysical assertion, that advanced technology really is magic. He defends the first assertion and, of course, denies the second:

There are, however, many people who believe a claim that is analogous to, and as silly as, the metaphysical thesis that sufficiently advanced technology really is magic — namely the claim that a machine running a sufficiently advanced computer program really is intelligent. It is not intelligent, and we know that it is not intelligent (or should know, if we are thinking clearly) precisely because we know that it is merely running a computer program.

How naive are people who believe that AI really is intelligent?

Building a computer is precisely analogous to putting together a bit of magical sleight of hand. It is a clever exercise in simulation, nothing more. And the convincingness of the simulation is as completely irrelevant in the one case as it is in the other. Saying “Gee, AI programs can do such amazing things. Maybe it really is intelligence!” is like saying “Gee, Penn and Teller do such amazing things. Maybe it really is magic!”

AI is a magic act, that can of course be put to very useful and even amazing purposes. But it is still an act, not real intelligence:

The way computers work is by exploiting a parallelism between logical relationships on the one hand and causal connections on the other. The fundamental examples of this are logic gates…

The thing to emphasize is that the computer is not in and of itself carrying out logical operations, processing information, or doing anything else that might be thought a mark of genuine intelligence—any more than a piece of scratch paper on which you’ve written some logical symbols is carrying out logical operations, processing information, or the like. Considered by themselves and apart from the conventions and intentions of language users, logical symbols on a piece of paper are just a bunch of meaningless ink marks. Considered by themselves and apart from the intentions of the designers, a Tinkertoy computer is just a bunch of sticks moving around, as stupidly as if they had been tossed down the stairs. And in exactly the same way, considered by themselves and apart from the intentions of the designers, the electrical currents in an electronic computer are just as devoid of intelligence or meaning as the current flowing through the wires of your toaster or hair dryer. There is no intelligence there at all. The intelligence is all in the designers and users of the computer, just as it is all in the person who wrote the logical symbols on the piece of paper rather than in the paper itself.

Ed Feser, “Artificial intelligence and magical thinking” at Edward Feser (blog)

Feser is right. There’s not a shred of intelligence in a computer. Human beings are intelligent and we use computers to represent and leverage our human intelligence. All of the logic “in” a computer is really human logic, represented in a computer. All of the mathematics, all of the literature, all of the thought in a computer program is really just human thought, represented in the computation.

Belief that AI is real intelligence is no more credible than belief that a voice on a telephone is a “magic” mind in the telephone itself or that Penn and Teller really sawed that woman in half.

The sophistication of modern computer science shouldn’t blind us to reality. Only humans have rational minds. Machines can’t think. We can enjoy the AI act, and even benefit enormously from it, but we must never believe that it is anything more than an act.

Computers are our tools, nothing more. If we are to use them wisely, we must understand just what they are, and just what they are not.

[Note: Michael Egnor will be interviewing Ed Feser (podcast) in the near future. We’ll keep you posted. ]

Also by : Michael Egnor Are electrons conscious?


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Michael Egnor

Senior Fellow, Center for Natural & Artificial Intelligence
Michael R. Egnor, MD, is a Professor of Neurosurgery and Pediatrics at State University of New York, Stony Brook, has served as the Director of Pediatric Neurosurgery, and award-winning brain surgeon. He was named one of New York’s best doctors by the New York Magazine in 2005. He received his medical education at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and completed his residency at Jackson Memorial Hospital. His research on hydrocephalus has been published in journals including Journal of Neurosurgery, Pediatrics, and Cerebrospinal Fluid Research. He is on the Scientific Advisory Board of the Hydrocephalus Association in the United States and has lectured extensively throughout the United States and Europe.

Computers Are No Smarter Than Tinkertoys