Chapter 63: Submarines that Swim!

Yesterday was my first day as a part time non-degree student at George Washington University. Our professor was one of the lead programmers for the Apollo program, and informed us that the “Machine Intelligence and Cognition” class we had just sat down to was to be his swan song: the final class he would teach before retirement. He asked us to introduce ourselves.

“My name is Sam, and I work at the United States Patent and Trademark office as a Patent Examiner.”
“You know, Einstein was a patent examiner.”
“I remind myself … every … day.”

We started talking about the history of thinking about the brain, about how religion had stifled independent thought for so long in history. “Why does this pen drop? Because God wanted it to.” He said there was still magic in the world, and that it was his life long task to wipe away the magic and to begin to understand the human brain. He cited the following quote from the famous mathematician and computer scientist Dijkstra:

“The question of whether Machines can Think is about as relevant as the question of whether Submarines can Swim!”

This is a very famous quote in the Artificial Intelligence community, spoken by a person not very famous for his work in AI. However, my professor took this quote and used it in a way that I’d never imagined and still don’t feel entirely comfortable with. Paraphrased, this quote meant that there was still something special about the human brain to Dijkstra, something off limits. Call it a soul, call it the notion that people cannot build something smarter than themselves, but call it magic at some level.

I disagree.

I’m not sure if it was an internal interpretation that I made originally or if it was something my old AI teacher said, but I always interpreted it as much more positive. I looked up the original context in which he made the comment, and I don’t feel I’m overstepping my bounds when I say that Dijkstra wasn’t calling the brain off limits.

When early scientests approached the problem of creating an artificial intelligence, they strove to recreate the brain. All of it. They thought to make something act intelligent, it had to be intelligent like humans were intelligent. That’s not quite the case.

Your inbox is carefully cleaned by statistics. Bayesian filters they call them. They match up words and phrases and create complex models to determine what is spam and what isn’t. The process is pretty neat and exhibits a certain “smartness” to it, but it’s not a human intelligence. In fact, it solves the problem of distinguishing between spam and non-spam about on par with a human and about a million times as fast.

When you approach a problem, most likely you have a set way of proceeding, a way of thinking about it. Dijkstra tells me to throw all of that out. The wheel was a monumental achievement to humans because it provided a simpler solution to the problem of traveling on even ground. If you’re moving things on even ground and you don’t want them to stop themselves, wheels are much easier and more useful than inventing a pair of robotic legs.

Machines that Think is something we’ll always be working towards. Kurzweil says it can be done by 2030, or we’ll at least be able to simulate it. But it’s not necessary to sort your mail.

Watch to see how other people do things, but never forget that you could do it better.

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