Math Chat: Computers, Free Will, And Marching Ants

Old free will challenge

Is it logically possible for a computer to have free will?


Seth Rogers argues that "since a computer must follow its program it does not have choice. Many contend that the brain works the same way by firing neurons, but they do not distinguish the mind from the brain. Since a computer and a brain perform similar functions, the study of AI [artificial intelligence] can reveal the boundary between the brain and the mind."

On the other hand, Michael Jackson argues that if people can have free will, so can computers. He predicts that some day computers will pass the "Turing Test" of successfully posing as humans, say in a chat room on the network, with similar intelligence, humor, and unpredictability.

Robert Wilcox Lewis believes that "a computer could eventually be developed with complex feedback circuits and 'fuzzy logic' able to 'think,' which also could be programmed to 'do as it sees fit' and 'make its own decisions.'" Luis Baars quips that his computer certainly has a will of its own.

Lewis concludes that "it comes down to your definition of free will." Free will classically means that one's actions are not predetermined. We agree that computers often come up with unexpected responses and solutions.

Whether computers are in some deeper sense predetermined is a harder question. In modern physics, quantum mechanics says that nothing is predetermined: that almost anything has some (perhaps very tiny) probability of occurring.

Deb Bergstrand suggests that free will should mean the freedom to do what one decides to do, and Ruth Gatto points out that computers "operate freely where the human mind cannot cope with massive amounts of technical information."

Meanwhile, Hymro Schnepple cites philosophers from Plato to Spinoza (free will as an illusion) to Nick Herbert (who describes the discovery process as "the porridge wakes up") and concludes that computers cannot have free will, as it "exists only in transcendence - perceived through the higher Atman, or soul-body, which physical-universe computers simply do not have."

Gatto concludes that "through the computer world, mankind for the first time can see its mental state objectively. Hopefully this will guide us to a higher awareness of the infinity and possibilities of the mind's intellect."

New marching ants challenge (Luke Somers)

A column of ants marches in single file, until one ant falls away and they then march two by two, until another ant falls away and they then march three by three, and so on until finally they are marching 10 by 10. How many ants were there to start with?

Mathematics Week

Mathematics Week starts April 20, with the theme of "Mathematics and the Internet." The Monitor has a World Wide Web site at, where you can find your way to 1997 Math Chats by taking the Site Express to "Science."

* To be eligible for "Flatland" and other book awards, send answers and new questions to:

Math Chat

Bronfman Science Center, Williams College

Williamstown, MA 01267

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