Much is made today of the growing capabilities of computers, and the apparently evanescent differences between a man's mind and a machine. In Dune's Orange Catholic Bible, the first commandment is, "Thou shalt not make a machine in the image of a man's mind" - referring to the devastating wars against sentient machines. Television, film, and anime are all full of speculation about the future of computer evolution, indirectly seeking out what makes men to be men; that which, when removed, would make us no longer men. In the mid 20th century, Mr. Alan Turing proposed that computers could eventually mimic human interaction successfully - attempting to argue, it seems to me, that machines could "think"; or at least making a definite prolegomena to that proposition. Now, in the present day, computers can imitate simple human interaction so well that two thirds of the time (if I recall correctly), a third party cannot reliably distinguish between them. The road to Blade Runner seems paved.
Wishing to examine the matter myself, I visited cleverbot.com, where their new 'chatbot' had done well in the last Turing Test. I asked it a series of human questions: How ought we to live? What is justice? Why is there being rather than nothing? Here is the beginning of the 'conversation':
Me: What is justice?
Computer: Justice is demacia
Me: How ought we to live?
Computer: Forever if you would like.
Me: Why is there being rather than nothing?
Computer: Ask a scientist.
I tried several approaches, but dialogue was completely impossible. The computer was unable to work off of previous responses, so individual inquiries into matters of weight was fruitless (when your interlocutor cannot recall you asked a question and has no memory beyond your last response, better to abandon the dialogue and seek guidance elsewhere). No less fruitless was the scattered questions enumerated above. Apart from the most amusing third response, the answers (I asked the question multiple times) were either incoherent, self-contradictory, or total nonsense. I sensed immediately a privation that could not be explained by ignorance, indolence, or even excessive frivolity. With a start I realized that were the judge to watch a chat between Socrates and a computer, the correct answer would be apparent every time.
"For now", some might say, and who knows? Perhaps they are right. But given the absurdly bad performance in the present day, how could a computer ever attain the gift of reason? Though we can apparently without limit increase the power of a computer to perform calculations we feed it, how can this increase of power ever end in a universal principle? It seems a bit like counting to infinity; fruitless by definition. In this I found a most unexpected ally in Descartes, and while investigating Mr. Turing I came across this excerpt from the Discourse on Method:
"If there were machines which bore a resemblance to our
bodies and imitated our actions as closely as possible for all
practical purposes, we should still have two very certain means of
recognizing that they were not real men. The first is that they could
never use words, or put together signs, as we do in order to declare
our thoughts to others. For we can certainly conceive of a machine so
constructed that it utters words, and even utters words that correspond
to bodily actions causing a change in its organs. … But it is
not conceivable that such a machine should produce different
arrangements of words so as to give an appropriately meaningful answer
to whatever is said in its presence, as the dullest of men can do.
Secondly, even though some machines might do some things as well as we
do them, or perhaps even better, they would inevitably fail in others,
which would reveal that they are acting not from understanding, but
only from the disposition of their organs. For whereas reason is a
universal instrument, which can be used in all kinds of situations,
these organs need some particular action; hence it is for all practical
purposes impossible for a machine to have enough different organs to
make it act in all the contingencies of life in the way in which our
reason makes us act."
Descartes has thus earned another hard, critical look (in a way Lucretius has likely not, but if so, it is only by the grace of Strauss) and I shall treat him far more seriously than I did as a sophomore and junior. But speaking of Descartes here:
An objection might be raised: Even if what Descartes and I say is true, how do we explain the success computers are gaining in ever more recent Turing Tests? Perhaps the inverse or contrapositive (I hope it proves to be the latter, but my formal logic is most regretfully shaky) of Descartes' famous maxim, suitably explicated, can pose something of an answer; at any rate, we can ponder if it is true or not (and it's the substantive form of the adjective, so leave me alone):
Ego non cogito, ergo non humanus sum.