Thinking about machines that think

At the beginning of every year, literary agent, editor and publisher John Brockman asks his network of authors, scientists, and cross-disciplinary thinkers a big question, then publishes the answers at Edge.org. This year’s annual Edge Question was: “What do you think about machines that think?” He solicited answers from a broad range of people including many like myself who are not considered to be professional “artificial intelligence” experts, but who he though might have something interesting and provocative to say. My answer was titled “Electric Brains“, playing off the Chinese translation for computer. I focused on what I think are extensions of some of the questions and issues I addressed in Consent of the Networked. Here is how it begins:

The Chinese word for “computer” translates literally as “electric brain.”

How do electric brains “think” today? As individual machines, still primitively by human standards. Powerfully enough in the collective. Networked devices and all sorts of things with electric brains embedded in them increasingly communicate with one another, share information, reach mutual “understandings” and make decisions. It is already possible for a sequence of data retrieval, analysis, and decision-making, distributed across a “cloud” of machines in various locations to trigger action by a single machine or set of machines in one specific physical place, thereby affecting (or in service of) a given human or group of humans.

Perhaps individual machines may never “think” in a way that resembles individual human consciousness as we understand it. But maybe some day large globally distributed networks of non-human things may achieve some sort of pseudo-Jungian “collective consciousness.” More likely, the collective consciousness of human networks and societies will be enhanced by—and increasingly intertwined with—a different sort of collective consciousness generated by networks of electric brains.

Will this be a good thing or a bad thing?

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