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“Could a machine…” by Douglas Hofstadter

From the Foreword of Andrew Hodges’ “Alan Turing: The Enigma” by Douglas Hofstadter

Is a mind a complicated kind of abstract pattern that develops in an underlying physical substrate, such as a vast network of nerve cells? If so, could something else be substituted for the nerve cells – something such as ants, giving rise to an ant colony that thinks as a whole and has an identity – that is to say, a self? Or could something else be substituted for the tiny nerve cells, such as millions of small computational units made of arrays of transistors, giving rise to an artificial neural network with a conscious mind? Or could software simulating such richly interconnected computational units be substituted, giving rise to a conventional computer (necessarily a far faster and more capacious one than we have ever seen) endowed with a mind and a soul and free will? In short, can thinking and feeling emerge from patterns of activity in different sorts of substrate – organic, electronic, or otherwise?

Could a machine communicate with humans on an unlimited set of topics through fluent use of a human language? Could a language-using machine give the appearance of understanding sentences and coming up with ideas while in truth being as devoid of thought and as empty inside as a nineteenth-century adding machine or a twentieth-century word processor? How might we distinguish between a genuinely conscious and intelligent mind and a cleverly constructed but hollow language-using facade? Are understanding and reasoning incompatible with a materialistic, mechanistic view of living beings?

Could a machine ever be said to have made its own decisions? Could a machine have beliefs? Could a machine make mistakes? Could a machine believe it made its own decisions? Could a machine erroneously attribute free will to itself? Could a machine come up with ideas that had not been programmed into it in advance? Could creativity emerge from a set of fixed rules? Are we – even the most creative among us – but passive slaves to the laws of physics that govern our neurons?

Could machines have emotions? Do our emotions and our intellects belong to separate compartments of our selves? Could machines be enchanted by ideas, by people, by other machines? Could machines be attracted to each other, fall in love? What would be the social norms for machines in love? Would there be proper and improper types of machine love affairs?

Could a machine be frustrated and suffer? Could a frustrated machine release its pent-up feelings by going outdoors and self-propelling ten miles? Could a machine learn to enjoy the sweet pain of marathon running? Could a machine with a seeming zest for life destroy itself purposefully one day, planning the entire episode so as to fool its mother machine into ‘thinking’ (which, of course, machines cannot do, since they are mere hunks of inorganic matter) that it had perished by accident?

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