Don't Worry: Your Computer Is Not After You, or Your Job 
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 Don't Worry: Your Computer Is Not After You, or Your Job

 June 10, 2002 By LEE GOMES
 Don't Worry: Your Computer Is Not After You, or Your Job

Will super-smart machines ever be built? If they are, will they be
conscious? At places like M.I.T., academic careers and entire departments
were built by answering "yes" to those sorts of questions, starting in the
1950s and 1960s. At Berkeley, though, came thundering dissents, notably from
Hubert Dreyfus and John Searle, both from the university's philosophy
department.

The two men began their careers at about the time "2001: A Space Odyssey"
was releasedand when artificial-intelligence researchers were insisting
computers as smart as HAL would be possible by the date in the movie's
title.

PROF. DREYFUS, though, said AI researchers were adopting a very mechanical
view of intelligence and the mind at the same moment in history that
philosophers were abandoning the approach as unworkable. He predicted that
whatever progress computers might make in limited fields such as chess, the
machines would never have the sort of common sense, everyday knowledge that
is the foundation of human intelligence.

Today, not only do computers lack common sense, but there also isn't even a
research consensus on how to give it to them.

Prof. Searle picked up where Prof. Dreyfus left off, arguing that even if
you could build a machine as smart as HAL, it still wouldn't have what
humans call "consciousness." Consciousness is a specific biological product
of the brain, he said; a computer program simulating the brain would no more
be able to be conscious than a program simulating digestion would be able to
eat a pizza.

Over the years, both men have written prodigiously, and to good effect; most
outsiders say the Berkeley side has all but vanquished its rivals.

Even M.I.T. concedes some inroads. "The ground has shifted a little towards
Dreyfus," said Rodney Brooks, director of the school's famed AI Lab, "but in
a more sophisticated way than Dreyfus was originally arguing. He may have
been more right than AI people once thought, but his rationale was somewhat
flaky." Prof. Brooks, though, said he still disagrees with Prof. Searle,
saying the latter "desperately wants there to be something 'special' about
people and animals in an almost mystical way (although he will deny this)."

It's in the booming academic field of "cognitive science," devoted to the
study of the mind, where the Berkeley school's triumph is most apparent. The
discipline became popular roughly a generation ago, when AI was ascendant
and when the computer was viewed as an apt metaphor for the brain. The Sloan
Foundation decided to back cognitive sciences, but hedged its bets with
grants to both M.I.T. and Berkeley.

These days, it's getting harder to find anyone in cognitive sciences who
still believes computers are useful models for intelligence, consciousness
and the like. Instead, most people in the field spend their time studying
actual brains: scanning 'em, slicing 'em, dicing 'em. It's essentially the
Dreyfus-Searle research agenda: To understand the mind, forget about
computers and look at the gray stuff inside our heads.

Still, the idea persists that the brain works like a computer, and vice
versa, in part for the same reason people once thought the sun moved around
the earth: because it sure seems that way to the casual, uninformed
observer. That's why super-smart, conscious machines are still, after all
these years, a staple of science fiction. The irony is that it's becoming
more and more apparent that there isn't much that is "scientific" about that
idea, any more than there is about some of the genre's other staples, like
faster-than-light travel.

Even in Silicon Valley, one occasionally hears nightmare scenarios about
computers running amok and giving the pink slip to their human creators.
Lost in the discussion is the fact that the starting point of the
argument --that intelligent, conscious machines are just around the
corner -- is looking more and more like silly ranting.

Prof. Drefyus just chuckles whenever he hears people fretting about
malevolent computers announcing they are the boss. "People were saying the
same thing back in the 1960s. The idea is just so crazy that it is hard to
know what to say about it."

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Updated June 10, 2002 10:23 a.m. EDT
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Tue, 30 Nov 2004 14:31:34 GMT  
 
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