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Why People Think Computers Can’t




PEOPLE ARE CONVINCED computers cannot think. That is, really think. Everyone knows that computers already do many things that no person could do without “thinking.” But when computers do such things, most people suspect, that there is only an illusion of thoughtful behavior, and that the machine

.doesn’t, know what it’s doing . is only doing what its programmer . has no feelings. And so on.

told it to

ever “really think.” I think those specialists are too used t,o explaining that there’s nothing inside computers but little electric currents. This leads them to believe that there can’t be room left for anything else-like minds, or selves. And there are many other reasons why so manyexperts still maintain that machines can never be creative, intuitive, or emotional, and will never really think, believe, or understand anything. This essay explains why they are wrong Can Computers Do Only What They’re Told?

The people who built the first computers were engineers concerned with huge numerical computations: that’s why So, when computers the things were called computers. firstappeared, their designers regarded them as nothing but machines for doing mindless calculations. Yet even then a fringe of people envisioned what’s now called “Artificial Intelligence”-or “AI” for short-because they realized that computers could manipulate not only numbers but also symbols. That meant that computers should be able to go beyond arithmetic, perhaps to imitate the informaCon processesthat happen inside minds. In the early 1950’s, Turing began a Chess program, Oettinger wrote a learning program, Kirsch and Selfridge wrote vision programs, all using the machines that were designed just for arithmetic. Today, surrounded by so many automatic machines, industrial robots, and the R2-D2’s of Star Wars movies, most people think AI is much more advanced than it is. But still, many“computer experts” don’t believe that machines will

We naturally admire our Einsteins and Beethovens, and wonder if computers ever could create such wondrous theories or symphonies. Most people think that “creativity” requires some mysterious “gift” that simply cannot bc explained. If so, then no computer can createsince, clearly, anything machines can do can be explained. To see what’s wrong withthat, we’d better turn aside from those outstanding works our cuhure views as very best of all. Otherwise we’ll fall into a silly trap. For, until we first have some good ideas of how WC do the ordinary things -how ordinary people write ordinary symphonies-we simply can’t expect to understand how great composers write great symphonies! And obviously, until we have some good ideas about that, we’dsimply have no way to guess how difficult might be the problems in composing those most outstanding works-and t,hen, with no idea at all of how they’re made,


Fall 1982


of course they’ll seem myst,erious! (hs Arthur Clarke has said, any technology sufficiently advanced seems like magic.) So first we’d better understand how people and computers might do the ordinarythings that we all do. (Besides, those skeptics should be made to realize t,hat their argumentIs imply that ordinary people can’t think, either.) So let’s ask if we can make computers that can use ordinary common sense; unt,il we get a grip on that we hardly can expect to ask good questions about works of genius. In a practical sense, computers already do much more than their programmers tell them to.I’ll grant that the carliest and simplest programs were little more than simple lists and loops of commands like “Do thzs. Do that. Do thas and that and thzs agazn until that happens ” That made it hard to imagine how more could emerge from such programs than their programmers envisioned. But t!here’s a big difference bct,ween “impossible” and “hard to imagine.” The first is about at; the...
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