John Brockman: “What Do You Think About Machines that Think?”

John Brockman: “What Do You Think About Machines that Think?”

Leading Experts share their opinions on intelligent machines

John Brockman, renowned visionary and editor of the online publication "Edge", asked leading scientists, philosophers and artists for their thoughts about thinking machines. The result is a heterogeneous and varied compendium that brings together a plethora of opinions and positions on AI.

It’s this diversity that makes the book so remarkable. Instead of just asking experts from the fields of machine learning, natural language processing or other disciplines, it gives voice to well-known authors such as Douglas Coupland, artists like Brian Eno, as well as journalists, philosophers all the way to theoretical physicists, astrobiologists, computer scientists and psychologists. The sheer number of authors with their different backgrounds and worldviews guarantee a wide range. Dystopias alternate with optimistic expectations, critical detachment with euphoric futurism. Each contributor has condensed his or her opinion down to a few pages so that you could spend half a year with the 186-page volume – assuming you read one every day.

But that diversity is also the book’s greatest weakness. Why were those authors chosen, why not 300 or 3,000? There certainly was no shortage of suitable statements on the topic. And that makes the anthology a bit arbitrary. On the other hand, there are plenty of worse books out there, so it doesn’t hurt to put this one on your nightstand and peruse it.

We’ve randomly picked three interesting positions from the collection. First, cognitive scientist Donald D. Hoffmann muses about different forms of natural intelligence which often aren’t that intelligent after all. He mentions the graylag goose as an example which showers its eggs with tender love until it sees a volleyball. The super-sized egg makes it forget its own offspring. Or the male jewel beetle which is buzzing around looking for a mate. Unless he spots a beer bottle. “It will abandon the female for the bottle, and attempt to mate with cold glass until death do it part.”
He sees similar limitations in humans: “Behavioral economists find that all of us make ‘predictably irrational’ economic choices. Cognitive psychologists find that we all suffer from ‘functional fixedness,’ an inability to solve certain trivial problems.” Which leads him to the following conclusion: “The limits of each intelligence are an engine of evolution.” He isn’t worried, though, that AI has now entered the evolutionary carousell since humans have learned to respond to any kind of challenge.

Science writer Tor Nørretranders sees “thinking machines” primarily as an opportunity for self-reflection. They should make us better humans: They “will mean a huge change in the way we understand something much more subtle and alien than machines: Ourselves. Teaching machines to think will teach us who we are and how we think… Building thinking machines will show us that there was a deep evolutionary wisdom in our social instincts: In the long run it pays much better to be unselfish. It is not truly selfish to be selfish, since being unselfish leads to better results for yourself.”

Experimental particle physicist Maria Spiropulu is more worried about humans who “drop thinking or are brainwashed, than smart thinking machines taking over.” Human intelligence in all its complexity, coupled with senses, feelings and intuition, is hard to reproduce. “Infinite unconnected clusters of knowledge will remain sadly useless and dumb. When a machine starts remembering a fact (on its own time and initiative, spontaneous and untriggered) and when it produces and uses an idea not because it was in the algorithm of the human that programmed it but because it connected to other facts and ideas — beyond its ‘training’ samples or its ‘utility function’ — I will start becoming hopeful that humans can manufacture a totally new branch of artificial species — self-sustainable and with independent thinking — in the course of their evolution.”

Until then, Spiropulu anticipates beings that are of human origin but whose abilities are augmented and amplified with machine capabilities. It’s up to the reader to decide whether those man-machine chimeras aren’t be a more dystopian outcome than AI taking over the world.

All in all, a thought-provoking book that offers plenty of food for discussion and new aspects of artificial intelligence. An entertaining and stimulating piece of science writing.

More information at and on the website of the publisher of the German edition

Add a comment

your browser is not up to date
to enjoy this website you will need to install a modern browser.
we recommend to update your browser and to install the latest version.

iOS users, please male sure you're running at least iOS 9.

Mozilla Firefox Google Chrome Microsoft Edge Internet Explorer