March 5, 2011 | David F. Coppedge

Is the Mind a Computer?

After a computer named Watson beat two contestants on Jeopardy last month, people are asking if the human mind is becoming obsolete.  What are the similarities and differences between gray matter and deep blue?
    PhysOrg asked, “Machines beat us at our own game: What can we do?”  For one thing, they should have waited a few days, because the same PhysOrg on March 1 reported that Congressman Rush Holt (D-NJ) beat Watson the Computer in a subsequent match.  He told an applauding audience that it was a victory for “neuron based thinking, instead of semi-conductor thinking.”  But was Watson really thinking?  Are neurons and semiconductors just different instantiations of the same process?
    The first article asked, “Watson’s victory leads to the question: What can we measly humans do that amazing machines cannot do or will never do?”  One immediate response was like a Jeopardy question: “Who – not what – dreamed up Watson?”  Obviously, Watson was a human creation: “While computers can calculate and construct, they cannot decide to create.  So far, only humans can.
    Computers are very good at sorting through databases of facts.  It’s a rather trivial operation to find an answer in a large database.  Human minds are not quite as fast at that mundane task, but that should not make us feel inferior (see 02/11/2011, 01/15/2011, and 11/19/2011).  That’s why humans subcontracted that work to machines of their making.  “Watson does just one task: answer questions,” a computer scientist said.  Computers known as expert systems have done well at finding solutions to problems, given the right inputs.  That’s not the same as thinking, feeling, choosing, creating, and knowing.
    “Can Watson decide to create Watson?” is a good follow-up question to those who disparage the human brain.  “Experts in the field say it is more than the spark of creation that separates man from his mechanical spawn,” PhysOrg continued.  “It is the pride creators can take, the empathy we can all have with the winners and losers, and that magical mix of adrenaline, fear and ability that kicks in when our backs are against the wall and we are in survival mode.”
    Don’t leave out art, music, language and spirituality: what the article called “song, romance, smiles, sadness and all that jazz” are parts of “that indescribable essence of humanity” computers just can’t duplicate at this time.  New Scientist discussed computer-created music and chance music from random audience actions, but reporter Kat Austen concluded, “from my experience it’s unlikely that audience-driven composition is going to be snapping at Chopin’s heels any time soon.”  Computers can probably duplicate the capacity of some humans for perfect pitch (see New Scientist), but even if computers can be programmed to generate music in sonata form, will they feel its beauty or know what they have achieved?  Sci-if notwithstanding, Watson’s creators recognize the great divide between mind and machine:

I see human intelligence consuming machine intelligence, not the other way around,” David Ferrucci, IBM’s lead researcher on Watson, said in an interview Wednesday.  “Humans are a different sort of intelligence.  Our intelligence is so interconnected.  The brain is so incredibly interconnected with itself, so interconnected with all the cells in our body, and has co-evolved with language and society and everything around it.
    “Humans are learning machines that live and experience the world and take in an enormous amount of information – what they see, what they taste, what they feel, and they’re taking that in from the day they’re born until the day they die,” he said.  “And they’re learning from all the input all the time.  We’ve never even created something that attempts to do that.

Artificial intelligence (AI) tries to create learning machines, but the article said, “there have been great advances in the field, but nothing near human thinking.”  Ferrucci has been working in AI for 25 years and admitted no one feels like they are getting near the finish line.  “I’m not sure we’ll ever really get there,” he said.  Readers will undoubtedly enjoy the response of Bart Massey [Portland State U]: “If you want to build something that thinks like a human, we have a great way to do that.  It only takes like nine months and it’s really fun.”  (He was referring, probably, to the initiation of the process, not childbirth and diapers.)
Update 03/08/2011: An intelligence analyst at Mercyhurst College, Kristan Wheaton, is not worried about Watson.  According to PhysOrg, she said that computers may be good at extracting data, they are very poor at analyzing data, especially when the inputs have deceptive information like propaganda from state-run news sources.  “The technologies are improving rapidly, though, and there might be machines capable of mimicking human intelligence at some point, but the last job I think they are going to get is that of the intelligence analyst.” Update 03/10/2011: Live Science explored another skill humans have over computers: the ability to tell a good joke. Recommended reading:
– Raymond Tallis reviewed two books on consciousness for New Statesman and challenged the notion that neuroscience is providing a material explanation for the mind.
– Response to Tallis article by Denyse O’Leary on Uncommon Descent #1 and #2.  O’Leary is co-author of The Spiritual Brain.
– David Berlinski, The Deniable Darwin and Other Essays (Discovery Institute press, 2009), “The Soul of Man Under Physics” (1996) and “On the Origin of the Mind” (2004).
– Michael Flannery, Alfred Russell Wallace: A Rediscovered Life (Discovery Institute Press, 2011).  Wallace, co-discoverer of natural selection with Darwin, denied Darwin’s materialism and believed the human mind and soul required intelligent design.
– Previous entries: 06/25/2007, 08/13/2007, 02/16/2011, 02/06/2011, 12/06/2010, 10/22/2010.

Think about thinking.  Now think about what you were thinking about thinking about thinking.  Now ask if it was morally responsible for you to follow those directions.  You just did things computers cannot hope to do.
    Our brains have tools; we can concentrate on a test question, trying to recall something we memorized; we can practice a skill or a good habit till it becomes second nature; we can let our innate search engine find an answer, like a person’s name, while we turn to other things; we can take our brains to sleep; we can play Jeopardy; we can focus on creating a melody or visualizing a piece of art.  But we have awareness of self behind those activities, choosing to do them, like a carpenter using tools.
    Raymond Tallis aptly said, “The idea of consciousness as a ‘show’ is ultimately derived from the bankrupt representational theory of the mind – a notion that things are present to us by virtue of being ‘represented’ or ‘modelled’ in the brain.  You cannot get to representation, however, without prior (conscious, first-order) presentation, so the latter cannot explain the former.”
    If you could travel inside a working brain, you would see a lot of neurons firing, and a lot of neurotransmitters traveling across synapses (12/23/2010), but you would not see a thought, language, creativity, or a concept.  It would be like trying to figure out a movie by watching the electrons in TV set.  Brain damage and drugs can affect the mind and consciousness, but it does not follow that the mind is material.  The mind uses the brain, but mind is not a secretion of the brain, as some early Darwinists argued.  If it were, their own thoughts about that would be self-refuted.
    As for the statements in the above articles about brains evolving or co-evolving with language, well, that’s the effect of old Darwine on the brain again.  Sober up.

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