carlo_rovelli's picture
Theoretical Physicist; Aix-Marseille University, in the Centre de Physique Théorique, Marseille, France; Author, Helgoland; There Are Places in the World Where Rules Are Less Important Than Kindness
Just Other Natural Creatures Of A Natural World


There is big confusion about thinking machines, because two questions always get mixed up. Question 1 is how close to thinking are the machines we have built, or are going to build soon. The answer is easy: immensely far. The gap between our best computers and the brain of a child is the gap between a drop of water and the Pacific Ocean. Differences are in performance, structural, functional, and more. Any maundering about how to deal with thinking machines is totally premature to say the least.
Question 2 is whether building a thinking machine is possible at all. I have never really understood this question. Of course it is possible. Why shouldn’t it? Anybody who thinks it's impossible must believe something like the existence of extra-natural entities, transcendental realities, black magic, or similar. He/she must have failed to digest the ABC's of naturalism: we humans are natural creatures of a natural world. It is not hard to build a thinking machine: suffice few minutes of a boy and a girl, and then a few months of the girl letting things happen. That we haven’t found other more technological manners yet, is accidental. If the right combination of chemicals can perform thinking and feeling emotions, and it does—the proof being ourselves—then sure there should be many other analogous mechanisms for doing the same.
The confusion stems from mistakes. We tend to forget that many things behave differently than few things. Take a Ferrari, or a supercomputer. Nobody doubts they are just a (suitably arranged) pile of pieces of metal and other materials, without black magic. But if we watch a (non arranged) pile of material, we usually lack the imagination for fancying that such a pile could run like a Ferrari or predict weather like a supercomputer. Similarly, if we see a bunch of material, we generally lack the imagination for fancying that (suitably arranged) it could discuss like Einstein or sing like Joplin. But it might—proofs being Albert and Janis. Of course it takes quite some arranging and details, and a "thinking machine" takes a lot of arranging and details. This is why it is so hard for us to build one, besides the boy-girl way.
Because of mistakes, we have a view of natural reality, which is too flat, and this is the origin of the confusion. The world is more or less just a large collection of particles, arranged in various manners. This is just factually true. But if we then try to conceive the world precisely as we conceive an amorphous and disorganised bunch of atoms, we fail to understand the world. Because the virtually unlimited combinatorics of these atoms is so rich to include stones, water, clouds, trees, galaxies, rays of light, the colours of the sunset, the smiles of the girls in the spring, and the immense black starry night. As well as our emotions and our thinking about all this, which are so hard to be conceived in terms of atoms combinatorics, not because some black magic intervenes from outside nature, but because these thinking machines that are ourselves are, too, much limited in their thinking capacities.
In the unlikely event our civilisation lasted long enough and developed enough technology for actually building something that thinks and feels like we do—in a manner different than the boy-girl one, we will confront these new natural creatures in the same manner we have always done: in the manner Europeans and Native Americans confronted one another, or in the manner we confront a new previously unknown animal. With a variable mixture of cruelty, egoism, empathy, curiosity and respect. Because this is what we are, natural creatures in a natural world.