Thursday, December 06, 2007
We don't know what a machine is anymore
I was reading a great post on important differences between brains and computers. It is very interesting as it summarizes the current understanding of what a computer is and what it can and can't do. As I was reading it, it reminded me of a wonderful story by Edgar Allan Poe. In the Maelzel's Chess-Player story (1836) Edgar Allan Poe gives all the arguments to detract a supposedly automaton chess player Maelzel was exposing. The really interesting part is that trhough couple of his arguments you can see how limited their current understanding of what a machine could and could not do was at that time. Specially the two things that were apparently true then, but not some ~150 years later were:
"1. The moves of the Turk are not made at regular intervals of time, but accommodate themselves to the moves of the antagonist ... The fact then of irregularity, when regularity might have been so easily attained, goes to prove that regularity is unimportant to the action of the Automaton--in other words, that the Automaton is not a pure machine."
"3. The Automaton does not invariably win the game. Were the machine a pure machine this would not be the case--it would always win. The principle being discovered by which a machine can be made to play a game of chess, an extension of the same principle would enable it to win a game--a farther extension would enable it to win all games--that is, to beat any possible game of an antagonist. ..."
Some years later we could all see a machine that would play chess and for some time we could see it both take different intervals answering and win as well as loose a game. Today that the chess game computers are more sofisticated we might not even see a chess computer loose a game anymore, and the answer eventually might become so instantly that might be perceived as coming at regular intervals, but, still, by the time I read this story for the first time, I could see clearly that the "current" notion of what a computer can or can't do might and most likely will be wrong.
That's why I loved also this post with the differences between the brain and computers as we understand them today. Apart from being a very good detailed article, I loved it because I think it might be the kind of story we (and note I'm not saying our grandchildren) can look at in the future (near future I'd think because of the law of acceleration returns or exponential growth of technology) and realize how technology is changing and our notion of what technology is needs to change accordingly.
On the differences themselves, I believe brains and computers are different, they will continue to be. Computers will have some abilities (specifically regarding memory capacity and possibilities) that brains will only acquire by merging with technology, that's why it's important to think on how we will merge and how we design intelligent technology sooner than later (although it might be out of our control some day).