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TANGLED UP IN THE QUESTION

JAMES J. O’DONNELL

Classical scholar; University Professor, Georgetown University; author, Augustine, The Ruin of the Roman Empire, Pagans

Thinking is a word we apply with no discipline whatsoever to a huge variety of reported behaviors. “I think I’ll go to the store,” and “I think it’s raining,” and “I think, therefore I am,” and “I think the Yankees will win the World Series,” and “I think I’m Napoleon,” and “I think he said he would be here, but I’m not sure”—all use the same word to mean entirely different things. Which of them might a machine do someday? I think that’s an important question.

Could a machine get confused? Experience cognitive dissonance? Dream? Wonder? Forget the name of that guy over there and at the same time know that it really knows the answer and if it just thinks about something else for a while, it might remember? Lose track of time? Decide to get a puppy? Have low self-esteem? Have suicidal thoughts? Get bored? Worry? Pray? I think not.

Can artificial mechanisms be constructed to play the part in gathering information and making decisions that human beings now play? Sure, they already do. The ones controlling the fuel injection in my car are a lot smarter than I am. I think I’d do a lousy job of that.

Could we create machines that go further and act without human supervision in ways that prove good or bad for human beings? I guess so. I think I’ll love them, except when they do things that make me mad—then they’re really being like people. I suppose they could run amok and create mass havoc, but I have my doubts. (Of course, if they do, nobody will care what I think.)

But nobody would ever ask a machine what it thinks about machines that think. That’s a question that makes sense only if we care about the thinker as an autonomous and interesting being, like ourselves. If somebody ever does ask a machine this question, it won’t be a machine anymore. I think I’m not going to worry about that for a while. You may think I’m in denial.

When we get tangled up in this question, we need to ask ourselves just what it is we’re really thinking about.

 
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