“What does it mean to think?  Can machines think, or only humans? These questions have obsessed computer science since the 1950s, and grow more important every day as the internet canopy closes over our heads, leaving us in the pregnant half-light of the cybersphere.  Taken as a whole, the net is a startlingly complex collection of computers (like brain cells) that are densely interconnected (as brain cells are).  And the net grows at many million points simultaneously, like a living (or more-than-living?) organism.  It’s only natural to wonder whether the internet will one day start to think for itself.

(Or is it thinking already?)

These questions are important not only to the internet but to each individual computer.  Computers grow more powerful all the time.  Today, programs that are guided not just by calculations but by good guesses are important throughout the software landscape.  They are examples of applied artificial intelligence — and the ultimate goal of artificial intelligence is to build a mind out of software, a thinking computer — a machine with human-like (or super-human) intelligence.

In a way these possibilities are frightening, or at least thought-provoking.  But after all, human intelligence is the most valuable stuff in the cosmos, and we are always running short.  A computer-created increase in the world-wide intelligence supply would be welcome, to say the least.

It’s also reasonable to expect computers to help clean up the mess they have made.  They dump huge quantities of information into the cybersphere every day.  Can they also help us evaluate this information intelligently?  Or are they mere uncapped oil wells pumping out cyber-pollution — which is today just a distraction but might slowly, gradually paralyze us, as our choices and information channels proliferate out of control?  As each of us is surrounded by a growing crowd of computer-paparazzi all shouting questions and waving data simultaneously, and no security guards anywhere?

Here is an unfortunate truth: today’s mainstream ideas about human and artificial thought lead nowhere.

We are trapped by assumptions that unravel as soon as we think about them: “we” meaning not only laymen but many philosophers and scientists. Here are three important wrong assumptions.

Many people believe that “thinking” is basically the same as ‘reasoning.'”



  1. bigfatfurrytexan says:

    Outstanding article. I just got time to read it all.

    This is something i have pondered, just no where near as eloquently as Mr. Gelenter.

    The difference that he is looking for is “sensory feedback”. Without the ability to recieve sensory feedback, the mind lacks information about itself that isn’t gleaned from pure logic processing or getting information from others.

    Imagine that you were Helen Keller, for example. Without being able to recieve intelligible information from outside her own body, she had no contact with another mind and therefore had no context with which to apply herself.

    Some would say this is the conundrum of God. The reason for our existence…so that God may observe Himself. Of course, that is an interesting philosophical question, but the point is unless you can either observe yourself or your interactions with the world, or interact with another mind, then you are left completely isolated. How would the psyche respond to this?

    Very, very interesting article. I am going to have to go digging for some answers now. 😀

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