The Nature of Consciousness

Piero Scaruffi

(Copyright © 2013 Piero Scaruffi | Legal restrictions )
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These are excerpts and elaborations from my book "The Nature of Consciousness"

Machine Charisma

Nonetheless, it is important to realize why we are interested in knowing whether a computer can think, but not whether a refrigerator can think. They are both complex machines, and it is not obvious which one is more indispensable. In the event of a catastrophic earthquake, most people will be more concerned about the food in their refrigerator than about the files in their computer. Computers only solve some problems, not all problems: they don’t wash dishes, don’t run on roads, and don’t make ice. Ordinary life (and certainly survival) is more than mere Math.

One reason for our fixation with computers is purely socio-historical. In the age when Artificial Intelligence was born, computers were huge, and the sheer size was commanding attention. No other machine was that big (and nobody could predict that they would become so small so quickly). Because they were so terribly primitive (and this borders on the paradoxical), they were also very difficult to operate, and it was commonly held that only super-intelligent humans (and many of them together) were able to control them. The (flawed) syllogism was that if they required so much intelligence to operate, then computers must be very intelligent.

Furthermore, for anybody who was not fluent in electronics it was difficult to conceive of computation without thought: animals can do many things, but not multiplication, and certainly not faster than humans. Math was a privilege of one higher primate: us.  It was psychologically easier to assume that computers could think than to tear down a thousand-year old habit of associating Mathematics with the ability to think. Finally, a lot of the excitement arose simply from confusing intelligence, cognition and consciousness, a mistake that in the age before the boom of neurophysiology was very common, even among the likes of Turing.

The one thing that computers taught us is precisely that our traditional views of intelligence were flawed and we needed better ones. Before computers were invented, the scientific community had never been forced to define and distinguish intelligence, cognition and consciousness. No animal was threatening human superiority in any of them. Computers forced us to do that.

Even if intelligence is just computing many numbers very quickly (which means that a palmtop computer is intelligent), that does not automatically entail cognition or consciousness. And viceversa: a mentally retarded person may not be able to perform a multiplication but still be capable of feelings and introspection.

Computers have convinced us that “intelligence” is simply a misconception, and the word is not scientific.

The Turing Test was a misconception born out of a misconception.


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