You needn't have taken a philosophy course to see "A.I.," the new Steven Spielberg movie, but you may wish you'd enrolled in Philosophy 101 by the time you exit the cinema.
"A.I." (Artificial Intelligence), is a futuristic story in which a robot resembling an 11-year-old boy embarks on a Pinocchio-like quest to become human. Mr. Spielberg's movie posits the idea that machines can develop self-awareness, and even understand love.
Is Spielberg's premise as far-fetched as "E.T." flying a bicycle past the moon? Not according to Ray Kurzweil, who is something of a superstar in the AI community, currently made up of hundreds of corporations and universities across the world. In his book "The Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence," Dr. Kurzweil predicts that computers will come to replicate the full range of human intelligence.
It's the astonishing growth in real-world artificial-intelligence technology that is forcing thinkers, theologians, philosophers, and the public to reexamine some age-old fundamental philosophical questions with a new vigor and urgency. Is it possible to replicate human consciousness in machines? If so, then what does that tell us about consciousness? What does it mean to be human?
"What's really at issue in the debate are fundamental metaphysical theological convictions about the fundamental reality of things - is mind reducible to mechanism or to computation?" says Jay Richards, co-editor of the forthcoming book "Are We Spiritual Machines?" for the Seattle-based Discovery Institute. "The great thing about [artificial intelligence] is that there aren't a lot of subjects that can bring high-level philosophical disputes into the public sphere."
And for some, solving these questions while AI is still in its incipient stages is critical.
"If your grandmother was cuddling a [robot toy] Furby and feeling this incredible attachment to it, are you cool with that?" asks Sherry Turkel, a professor of the sociology of science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. "We're at a moment in history where ... you can have some people thinking it's totally unproblematic to have these kinds of relationships with robotic objects, and some people like me who still feel, 'can we talk about this?' "
It's important to define who we are now, and to define whether a machine can possess true consciousness, says Dr. Turkel, before the difference between human and machine becomes too blurred.
"If history is correct, we will continue to define who we are in relationship to what we see as close to us," says Turkel. "We will define what's special about ourselves in relation to these robots."
The relationship between man and machine is already changing. "[AI] is creeping into our lives in ways that we're starting to become aware of," says Tom Mitchell, the incoming president of the American Association for Artificial Intelligence. "I had a phone conversation with a computer the other day. It wasn't a very interesting conversation, but I called the information number and it asked me which city and listing."
Shifting from practical to intelligent machines
The vast majority of AI research is focused on practical applications, but developments like this sort of voice-recognition software have shifted the threshold of what we now take for granted, coloring the way everyman views philosophical debates about sentient computers, according to Mr. Mitchell.
Leslie Pack Kaelbling, associate director of the MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, notes that we already talk as if the simplest of machines were intelligent: "You talk about your thermostat thinking it's too hot in here, and it needs to be colder."
Dr. Kaelbling says that she doesn't see any reason why we won't be able to make a machine that's indistinguishable from a human in the future. As robots become increasingly sophisticated, we'll have no recourse but to use language like, "it needs this, it wants that, it thinks this," she says. Eventually, we'll just start treating them as if they're intelligent or as if they're conscious.
"There is still a kind of philosophical conversation about what's going on, but I think the pragmatics kind of take over," Kaelbling says.
Others think that would be a mistake.
"That to me is a non sequitur," says the Discovery Institute's Jay Richards. "You can have something that exhibits intelligent properties - a calculator exhibits intelligent properties - but it doesn't necessarily follow that it's conscious."
But short of hooking up a prosthetic-bodied robot to a lightning rod and waiting for a bolt to provide the spark of life - just how do scientists propose creating a machine that's indistinguishable from a human?
"That actually is as hard a task as one can imagine," admits Kurzweil. Replicating the appearance of humans isn't the most difficult task, he says.
Before that, he argues, the first machines resembling humans will appear in holographic form in the cyberspace of virtual reality. But the key to creating an intelligent robot lies in completing the mapping of the human brain's neurological connections and reproducing it in a machine's circuitry, he says.
"It's like the genome project where they showed it is possible to sequence DNA," Kurzweil says. "We've shown the feasibility of scanning the human brain with very high detail; of understanding that information when we get it; and recreating it in machines.... We've done it for thousands of neurons with millions of connections."
Kurzweil's prediction may be correct. Two months ago a group of Russian scientists announced to the Interfax news agency that they had developed the world's first artificial brain, or "neuro-computer," based upon models of brain neurons. But as yet there is no third-party confirmation of the claims.
Some critics aren't surprised. They're skeptical that human intelligence can be replicated in this way, on both practical and philosophical grounds.
For starters, mapping human DNA's six billion links seems like a sixth grade science project compared to taking on the cartography of more than 100 trillion connections in the brain.
"I think we could build a thinking machine, it's just that we don't have the faintest idea how to go about it, because we don't know how the brain goes about it," says philosopher John Searle of the University of California at Berkeley. Dr. Searle argues that the brain is a causal mechanism for consciousness and thus "simulation is not duplication."
Other thinkers question whether consciousness even resides in the brain in the first place.
Do brains account for mind?
In an essay entitled "The Materialist Superstition," the Discovery Institute's George Gilder writes "the usual materialist assumption is that the brain, the hardware, comes first and mind somehow emerges from it."
The renowned technology guru quotes neurosurgeon Wilder Penfield's conclusion after he'd conducted extensive research of the brain: "I, like other scientists, have struggled to prove that the brain accounts for the mind."
Mr. Gilder argues that computers won't replace the human mind, because neither computer nor brain could function as tools without the consciousness of mind providing context and meaning to the information that each processes. But if, if, scientists do succeed in producing a highly evolved, articulate intelligence capable of social interaction, then what does that tell us about what it means to be human?
One of the many ongoing philosophical debates surrounding AI will be among theologians, for whom the context of man's relationship to God is key.
John Jefferson Davis, a professor of systematic theology at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, Mass., says it may be possible to create intelligent cyborgs. But would they be akin to human beings, given that man, according to the Christian view, was created in the image and likeness of God?
"I would say that the essence of 'the image of God' is our unique ... capacity to have a conscious relationship with God that chimpanzees and frogs and bacteria don't have," Dr. Davis says.
"If there are cyborgs running out there who can enjoy Beethoven, and even write philosophy and supposedly reproduce themselves, I'm still worth as much," he says. "Theologically, I'd say human beings are still unique."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor