Can Machines Think?

Why do we care?

   The initial successes of computers in replicating seemingly intelligent behaviour quickly led to argument and speculation about what it would mean for a computer to be 'intelligent'. As any psychology student knows, intelligence is a very controversial topic -- making the classification of a man-made machine as intelligent even harder. In terms of raw calculation power, even computers of the mid 1950's could beat human counterparts. The brute force calculations of programs like Newell & Simon's Logic Theorist had already produced results that, had a human produced them, would be unwaveringly accepted as intelligent. Still the debate raged on. The argument focused on the fact that there was no ingenuity, no insight, the computer merely followed human-programmed rules mindlessly until it reached a conclusion. The other side countered that an argument like that was moot, since the results were intelligent and meaningful, the computer has produced proof of intelligence.

   The developers of AI were claiming more than just replication of intelligent products though, they claimed the replication of the intelligence process (this has come to be known as the Strong AI position, a term coined by philosopher John Searle). In other words, they were beginning to claim not only that computers were intelligent, but that they were intelligent in the same way as people are intelligent. Suddenly the debate became more than just a philosophical one, psychology entered the picture. If intelligent computers were produced, could they be considered a working model of human intelligence? All the computers to date, systems like the GPS (see previous section for more details) were mindless rule-followers, what did that say about human intelligence? If we accept them as intelligent, does it necessarily follow they must be intelligent in the way that we are? These were significant questions for psychologists and philosophers, as well as computer scientists.

   Each side found its supporters quite quickly. Critics like Hubert Dreyfus (author of "What Computers Can't Do" and later, "What Computers Still Can't Do") argued not only that current machines were not intelligent, but that no computer could ever be. Supporters like Marvin Minsky offered remarkable optimism with quotes like "Within 10 years the problems of artificial intelligence will be substantially solved," and later, "Within 10 years computers won't even keep us as pets." The important thing to recognize is that when people started asking "Can Machines Think", psychology became inextricably tied to the AI movement. A position it has held, and strengthened in the 50 years since. Time lends focus, so it is not surprising that by the 1980s, Minsky's optimism had thinned, even if he remained hopeful. The two papers assigned, one from Minsky, and the other from Dreyfus, present some of the more typical arguments and refutations in the field.

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