Can machines think?

The following tweet appeared on my timeline today:

Initially I thought “heh, fair point – we are defining that the only true intelligence is described by the properties humans exhibit”, and my in-built twitter filter1 ignored the inaccuracies of the analogy. I clicked on the tweet as I wanted to see what the responses were and whether there was a better metaphor that I could talk about. There wasn’t – the responses were mainly variants on the deficiencies of the analogy and equally problematic in their own right. While this didn’t descend into anything abusive2, I do feel that the essence of what was trying to be conveyed was lost and this will be a continual problem with twitter. One of the better responses3 did point out that cherry-picking a single feature was not the same as the Turing Test.  However, this did get me thinking based on my initial interpretation of the tweet.

In order to answer a big question we are simplifying it in one way.  Turing simplified “Can machines think?” to “can machines fool humans into thinking they are human?”.  By human, we also mean “able to converse in human language”.  One of the problems with equating thought to communication is that these are two disconnected abilities.  I am a thinking being and a have an appreciation of Russian, German and French, but ask me to have a conversation with someone in any of those languages and I’ll struggle unless I devote a lot of time into learning that language as if I was a native.  I would be classed as a machine in a non-English Turing test.  So the test falls down because of its reliance on natural language.  Is there a better way to define whether something can think?

Commonly, thinking is associated with intelligence – would this be a better fit? The dictionary definition of intelligence is:

The ability to acquire and apply knowledge and skills4

Computers are very good at acquiring information and making decisions based on that information, traditionally in a very fixed way.  With machine learning techniques, the acquiring of knowledge has become more refined, with semi-supervised and unsupervised techniques putting control of human hands.

So we have a type of artificial intelligence, but this doesn’t answer our original question.

Humans have the capacity to learn and make decisions without preconceived answers whereas computers need to be programmed.  Although we are born “pre-programmed” – we do not need to be taught how to see or hear or to make sounds, but we do need assistance to put those abilities into context; to make sounds that others can understand and to assign relevance to the shapes we see with our stereo vision.  An artificial thinking machine must be given an equal starting point.  We are given education to train us and there is a point at which a human becomes self aware.  The baby in the mirror is suddenly percieved to be a reflection rather than a different child5.

Machines can also have some limited sense of self awareness.  They can learn to recognise themselves (or parts of themselves) in mirrors6 and recently have demonstrated basic self awareness by understanding whether they were or were not affected by a “pill” to make them unable to speak7.

So machines can demonstrate intelligence and (limited) self awareness.  But this is still far from demonstration of thought.

There’s a great quote from the film I, Robot where Sonny, the robot, and the detective are discussing what makes someone “human”:

I, Robot (2004)

Detective Del Spooner: Human beings have dreams. Even dogs have dreams, but not you, you are just a machine. An imitation of life. Can a robot write a symphony? Can a robot turn a… canvas into a beautiful masterpiece?
Sonny: Can *you*?

While not all humans can posses the artistic creativity that we so often use to distinguish humans as a higher intelligence, with Google’s latest deep-dreaming research 8 machines are creating abstract art – original pieces that no human has ever imagined.  Some might argue these images are more artistic than many humans could produce, but they are simply the result of a finite number of decisions and their knock-on effects as a result of training to see patterns.  Is human imagination any different? Does our subconscious combine fragments of our knowledge and simply spit them out in a form we can understand?

Still, this is creativity, not thought.

While we can put electrodes on the outside of human heads and see the electric potentials arising with neurons firing, we can never truly know whether the person in front of us is thinking – we take it for granted because they are human.  In the same way that we take for granted a machine is not truly self aware.  We can only test and verify what we believe are the results of independent thought: self-awareness, intelligence, and the ability to solve problems outside of past experience using the skills gained.

Machines are capable of all of these things individually, although they are yet to be combined.  Even when that occurs, I believe that many will refute that thought is occurring because ‘it’ is just a simple state machine.  At that point I would have to ask: and are humans not?  Maybe if we can define “can humans think?” in a scientific way we can all agree, then we will have an irrefutable set of metrics for the inevitable machine intelligencies that will be part of our lives.

Part of this article was published in October 2016 by Clickz Digital Insights with permission.

  1. They’re great – everyone should have one – try to understand the intent rather than the limited sentence.
  2. Unlike far too many twitter discussions!
  5. There’s a fantastic book covering this from a scientific perspective called The Baby in the Mirror: A Child’s World from Birth to Three …
  7. – requires free registration to read

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Dr Janet is a Molecular Biochemistry graduate from Oxford University with a doctorate in Computational Neuroscience from Sussex. I’m currently studying for a third degree in Mathematics with Open University. During the day, and sometimes out of hours, I work as a Chief Science Officer. You can read all about that on my LinkedIn page.