On our trip to San Fran, we picked a day to visit the Muir Woods. Seeing the California Redwoods had always been a dream of mine. It’s a little over an hour from where our son lives, so there was time for one of our amazing family conversations. Family conversations in my house involve a lot of banter and wit. We were pushing a little toward computer science type issues because our youngest son works for Google.
In the course of the conversation, I asserted that computers can’t add. As I continually tried to articulate what I meant, I had to come up with a decent analogy. So when I say that “computers can’t add,” here is what I mean. If we take a proposition like 1+3=4, when human beings add, we can talk about what ‘1’ means. We can talk about the difference between unity and diversity. We can talk about what ‘3’ means. ‘3’ is so much different than ‘2.’ There is something expansive about it that is so different than the oppositional nature of ‘2.’ We can discuss what “+” means. We can even talk about issues surrounding “=.” Does it mean that two separate things become one thing? Does it mean that we are keeping the ‘1’ and ‘3’ separate, and we are just talking about the apparent results of the combination?
Now, imagine an apparatus. It has a bay holding a number of marbles at the top. Under this bay, there are a series of trap doors. The trap doors lead to a set of pipes. At the bottom of the apparatus, there are a series of dials by which you can manipulate the trap doors. You can turn the dials and control the release of the marbles through the trap doors. You turn one dial to ‘1’ and one dial to ‘3’. The marbles fall through the pipes and are collected at the bottom of the apparatus in a container. When you open it, there are 4 marbles in the container. The apparatus, whatever it is doing, is not doing the same thing that humans are doing when we use the word “add.” No one argues that the apparatus or pipes or dials knows what ‘1’ or ‘3’ or ‘+’ or ‘=’ means. This is the same thing that a computer does.
A computer doesn’t know what the difference between ‘1’ and ‘2’ and ‘3’ are. A computer doesn’t know what ‘+’ or ‘=’ means. From a Turing test perspective, we might not be able to tell the difference from looking from the outside. It’s like James Searle’s well known Chinese Room argument about why Artificial Intelligence can never really exist. Computers may look from the outside to be adding, but whatever they are doing, it is not what humans are doing when they use that word.
What I find most interesting about the age we live in is this tendency to spiritualize and anthropomorphize machines. Not every machine. No one getting straws from a straw dispenser pushes down twice, takes two straws and says, “Wow, that straw dispenser just did 1+1=2! It ‘adds’ so well!” But we do anthropomorphize computers and assume that what they are doing is the same thing that humans are doing. What is often more disturbing to me is when it goes in the other direction.
There is a great tendency to antikytheracize humans. When we come up against certain problems in human behavior, I hear people say, “We are ‘hard wired’ to behave in this fashion.” I’m certainly not suggesting that we don’t have tendencies that may have inexorable biological peduncles, but it is interesting that when people want to avoid the responsibility and freedom their actions necessitate, they turn to a computer analogy.
In many ways, we’ve flipped the ancient world on its head. We’ve stripped the physical world from spiritual foundations and learned how to view it mechanically. The simple wonder of a tree in all of its ineffable fortuity can be reduced to a set of adamantine and inflexible biological principles that stretch back through an impossibly long Rube-Golberg machine to some amino acids in a primordial goop. The non-sentient electricity running around inside of mechanistically predetermined silicon chips stretches forward and is awarded human, spiritual abilities like “adding.”
In some ways, it’s the ultimate end of Cartesian thinking. Rene gave us an anthropology of “the ghost in the machine.” We’ve concluded that he was right up to a point. Now, we are putting machines into the ghosts.
As we walked through the Muir Woods amongst those magnificent trees, many of which were conceived in coniferous romantic dalliances shortly after Charles the Fat ruled the Holy Roman Empire, we happened upon marker number 3. Jennifer, seeing it and being without a map said, “What is this 3 for?” My witty children immediately said, “Mama doesn’t know what a 3 is! Be careful! She could be a computer.”