The study of the human mind, and specifically its mental processes is a subject that has fascinated humanity since the time of the first Greek thinkers.
Cognitive Psychology started to use computational models (as simplified representations of reality) leading to the birth of a plethora of practical applications. We can find examples such as psychological and medical treatments, learning improvement, or even predicting group behaviors in educational, organizational, political, advertising or security and crisis settings.
But wait...we are questioning here if a machine can have real thoughts (according to the same standards that we handle for humans). But what does “thinking” means? And, what do we understand by “machine”? I am not a philosopher, but I am sure the answer to these questions poses an interesting debate for them...
Another interesting (and complex debate) would be about the purpose of thought, and what type and level of thought are we referring to with the original question of “Can machines think?...”
Along the same lines, we could ask ourselves if it is possible to believe that a thinking machine could have a purpose by itself, independently of the instructions or commands received (programmed) by humans.
Can you (human) think and not be able to choose your purpose?
Some buddies would say “...Oh yes, but slaves think...and it is evident that they are deprived of choosing their purpose...”. “True!” - I would respond, but is also evident is that even slaves have the possibility (physical and cognitive) of choosing their purpose, albeit they are helpless. This means that they will not be able to carry it out, even though they can maintain this desire inside their minds.
Further on, I will reflect on the meaning and usefulness of thinking machines, the opportunity that represents to humanity, and the precautions that we should take into account to prepare for that future where we would (or will) coexist with such intelligent machines.
What does it mean for machines to think? Is it relevant or useful to humans?
English mathematician Alan M. Turing, in his paper published in 1950 in Mind - "Computing Machinery and Intelligence" proposed to reformulate the question, can machines think? with a game called "The Imitation Game”. In this game, a human judge interacts with two computer terminals where one is controlled by a human and the other by a computer and the judge does not know who is who. The game indicates that if after a prolonged conversation with each terminal the judge is unable to distinguish who is who, it can be said that in some way the computer thinks.
This game is a means of answering the original question of “Can machines think?”. It is not exempt from objections from various approaches, although the approach of this essay does not intend to enter into that discussion, but rather to reflect on whether, if this statement is true, it may be useful for humans (not for themselves, which would be another discussion of a philosophical tinge).
My point of view is that, although the sciences, in general, have shown great advances in the human physical-corporal area, on the other hand, in the mental-cognitive sphere there has not been such a level of advances, which shows signs of our biological limitation. Thanks to thinking machines we have the historic opportunity to increase our cognitive capacities to unsuspected limits, overcoming our physiological barriers, which can take us to a new level of consciousness and personal and collective understanding of what it means to be human.
From this approach of "augmented humans" or more specifically "augmented minds" and trying to answer the initial question of whether machines can think, we ask ourselves if it has been useful that humans have been the cusp of evolution and the guarantors of evolution.
What do we mean by useful thought? We could say that it is the one that produces benefits beyond the instincts of survival and reproduction, shared with the animal and plant world and genetically inherited.
My vision is that thanks to this useful thought, humans have been able to reach the evolutionary peak, dominate the rest of the species and transform our environment for our benefit. This benefit has not only been materialized in increasing our capacities for survival and reproduction, but also in areas of consciousness, transcendence, and purpose as individuals and a species.
At this point, advances in various scientific and technological fields allow us to glimpse the ability to transform not only our environment but also our physical-corporal and mental-psychological essence:
Concerning our physical/corporal transformation, we can point out the use of drugs to alleviate or prevent diseases, parasites, viral or bacteriological infections, the transplantation of organs (donor or artificial), tissues or body members, the use of extracorporeal electronic devices to alleviate defects or physical impairments (pacemakers, insulin pumps, dialysis machine, prostheses, brain implants, ...). The ability to analyze our own body and components (blood analysis, tissues, body fluids, genetics, ...) would also fall within this spectrum to detect early genetic conditions or physiological deteriorations that allow us to anticipate treatments preventive or corrective. All this has pushed us to raise both our hope and our quality of life to limits not imaginable just a century ago.
Regarding psychological or cognitive-mental evolution, we could focus our reflection on the areas of self-awareness, sense of transcendence, and personal and collective purpose. Does a human of today think, reflect and reason the same as one of 200 years ago? Do we have the same aspirations or concerns? What mental barriers have we overcome as humanity? What challenges do we face individually and collectively?
A first reflection that we can make is that there seems to be strong evidence that humans have made spectacular progress in terms of physical/corporeal areas, and the proof is in our current life expectancy and quality of life. However, concerning our cognitive-mental abilities, it is difficult to find a strong consensus regarding the same level of advancement concerning the previous 200, 1000, or 10,000 years.
We continue to reflect and base our principles and values on Greek and Roman thinkers, the Torah, the Bible, the Koran, the Vedas, the books of Confucianism or the traditions of Taoist and Buddhist thought. Our short, procedural, and long-term memories along with our brain computing/reasoning power remain limited by our biological limitations.
We could say that in general terms we have advanced in our conceptual and abstraction capacity, although we have examples of great thinkers from thousands of years ago whose reflections continue to demonstrate high wisdom, even by today's standards.
In terms of the last 200-300 years, we can add within this cognitive-mental evolution the forms of organization of societies or politics such as the enlightenment, modern democracies, military dictatorships, republics / parliamentary monarchies, capitalism, socialism, liberalism, ecology, anarchism ...
As a summary of this reflection is that it seems that we have added new ways of combining the cognitive-mental tools that we have at the individual and collective level, but in its biological essence, we have no evidence that the human brain or its fundamental cognitive abilities have produced an evolutionary leap since the Bronze Age (some 5000 years ago with the first known civilizations and the invention of writing and mathematical calculation).
"... We have managed to evolve our bodies so that they live longer and better, but it does not seem that our mind-cognition-consciousness has evolved at the same level ... and we hope that evolutionary leap, will the machines be our allies to achieve it?"
New thinking beings or hybrid beings?
Due to the proposed approach to the usefulness that thinking machines can offer to humans, we will not enter into the debate that such thinking machines can have their ends and objectives independent of those of the humans they serve. This debate, while remaining extremely interesting, is looming complex and multifactorial, which is why it is reserved for other essays where it is possible to delve deeper.
Continuing with the reflection approach, the question we ask ourselves is how “thinking machines” could help us humans to overcome our biologically based cognitive limitations.
Can we think faster?
Can we increase our memory in the short and long term?
Will that lead us to increase our ability to solve complex problems?
Can we avoid cognitive biases?
And more importantly, will it be something useful for us and our society?
Perhaps what allows us to advance in science and technology is to achieve the saying of "thinking outside the box" in a "strict sense", delegating certain elements of the flow of our thought to a kind of "digital brain".
Such devices will increase our capacity for perception and conceptualization, memory, calculation, or abstract reasoning. In this way we will be able to collaborate with those computational entities external to our biology (or integrated into it, but synthetic) to solve complex problems, thus avoiding the current interfaces or translations man-to-machine and machine-to-man and all their limitations, reaching what we would call a level of "hybrid human-machine thinking."
A possible alternative would be that such thinking machines allow us to cooperate directly with other human individuals sharing a flow of processing for the resolution of a complex problem, serving the intelligent system of brain-brain interfaces, in such a way that our minds can communicate without the needing of spoken or written language, thus avoiding its limitations, biases, and interferences and catalyzing communication between people to inconceivable levels. It would be like allowing direct communication between minds through the so-called internal brain “lingua mentis” or “mentalese”.
This internal language will make it possible to directly communicate to other humans all sorts of perceptions, concepts, images (real or imagined), memories, reasoning, or even feelings (what about lying?…would it be possible then?, an interesting debate again…) The intermediate thinking machine would act as a mind-to-mind translator and would undoubtedly require as high a level of intelligence as is necessary to interpret the mental representations and intentions of both human minds.
Both approaches presented, 1) the cooperation between men and intelligent machines and 2) the increase of communication/cooperation between humans, enter fully into the field of transhumanism and how humans could self-configure themselves to overcome the new challenges that face present humanity in the coming decades.
Whether one is inclined to think that it is a good idea to achieve thinking machines or if on the contrary one feels panic about the idea, what seems clear to me is that the fact that machines can think according to the standards we handle (Turing test original or new test proposals) is a mere matter of time. That is, the question should not be if machines will think, but when they will and what purpose they will be assigned.
With that approach in mind, I am inclined to suggest that the smartest thing would be to try to anticipate that future by preparing our society with the necessary legal and operational tools so that the end of such thinking entities (their reason for existence) benefits us as a society. Such a purpose must be able to protect us from known or unknown evils and allow us to achieve benefits at individual and collective levels, either in the physical-corporeal or mental-cognitive realms.
My position is that thinking machines should have a good purpose, probably inspired by Isaac Asimov's 3 Laws of Robotics, which focused on individuals and society in general. We must lead the development of such intelligent beings towards these good intentions, always taking into account the humanist inspiration in the center.
Otherwise, the open scenarios for thinking machines would be closer to popular dystopian or unwanted futures, often utilized by science fiction literature.
Or maybe not.