Technology Pioneer David Gelernter 'Love Is Beyond Watson'
Part 3: "Scientists Will Never Reproduce a Human Mind"
SPIEGEL: There is a lab in Lausanne, Switzerland, where a group of scientists are trying to recreate the brain's biology in each and every detail, one neuron at a time, in a supercomputer. They hope to replicate a complete human brain within a decade. Wouldn't that be "a creature like us"?
Gelernter: They could produce a very accurate brain simulator. They may be able to predict the behavior of the brain down to the transmission of signals. But they're not going to produce a mind any more than a hurricane simulator produces a hurricane.
SPIEGEL: Other scientists are far more optimistic. Regardless of all the obstacles, they say, the exponentially growing number of transistors on a chip will provide us with virtually infinite possibilities. If we connect huge numbers of computer chips in the right way and give them the right tasks to perform, then at some point consciousness will emerge.
Gelernter: It is impossible to create mental states by writing software -- no matter how sophisticated it gets. If a simple computer can't produce orange juice, a much more complicated computer won't do any better. Computer chips are just the wrong substrate, the wrong stuff for consciousness. Now, can some kind of a miracle happen if you put a lot of them together? Maybe. But I have no reason to believe that such a miracle will happen.
SPIEGEL: Given that we can manage a really good fake, a robot that pretends to be conscious in a convincing way -- would we even notice if it wasn't the real thing?
Gelernter: It already makes no difference to us. Just take the robots in Iraq and Afghanistan where they search for mines and so forth. The men on the front lines become emotionally attached to their robots, they're sad when they are destroyed. And 50 years from now, robots will be much better. There are a lot of lonely people in the world. So now they have a robot, and it is around all the time, chats with them. Sure they will be attached to it. The robot will know all about them. The robot will be able to say things like, "How are you feeling this morning? I realize your back was hurting yesterday." Will people have human-type feelings towards the robots? Absolutely. And then the question becomes: Does it matter that, in this sense, they are being defrauded? The answer is, given the scarcity of companionship in the world, it probably doesn't matter in practical terms. However, it certainly matters philosophically. If you care about what it is to be a human being, the robot is not going to tell you.
SPIEGEL: Things might change if you give him a near-perfect body, equipped with sensors that help him feel things and explore his environment like humans do.
Gelernter: In that case the machine would be capable of simulating humanness much more effectively. But a fake body attached to a computer is still not going to generate real sensations. If you knocked your foot on something, your brain registers what we call pain. If you think of something good that is going to happen tomorrow, the body responds by feeling good, then the mind feels better and so forth. This feedback loop is very important to human behavior. A fake body, however, is still just binary switches with voltage levels going up and down.
SPIEGEL: The American computer scientist Ray Kurzweil argues that the Internet itself might be on the brink of becoming super-intelligent, just because it will have computing power beyond imagination. And his beliefs are gaining in popularity. Why are these ideas so attractive?
Gelernter: Because creating the mind is the philosopher's stone of the Digital Age. In the Middle Ages, the alchemists tried to produce gold. Now they've moved over to the mind. Don't get me wrong: They are going to produce a lot of interesting science along the way. But they are not going to get a mind.