OVER THE PAST few decades, electronic computer technology has made enormous strides. Moreover, there can be little doubt that in the decades to follow, there will be further great advances in speed, capacity and logical design.
The computers of today may be made to seem as sluggish and primitive as the mechanical calculators of yesteryear now appear to us. There is something almost frightening about the pace of development.
Already computers are able to perform numerous tasks that had previously been the exclusive province of human thinking, with a speed and accuracy which far outstrip anything that a human being can achieve.
We have long been accustomed to machinery which easily out-performs us in physical ways. That causes us no distress. On the contrary, we are only too pleased to have devices which regularly propel us at great speeds across the ground – a good five times as fast as the swiftest human athlete – or that can dig holes or demolish unwanted structures at rates which would put teams of dozens of men to shame.
We are even more delighted to have machines that can enable us physically to do things we have never been able to do before: they can lift us into the sky and deposit us at the other side of an ocean in a matter of hours.
These achievements do not worry our pride. But to be able to think – that has been a very human prerogative. It has, after all, been that ability to think which, when translated to physical terms, has enabled us to transcend our physical limitations and which has seemed to set us above our fellow creatures in achievement.
If machines can one day excel us in that one important quality in which we have believed ourselves to be superior, shall we not then have surrendered that unique superiority to our creations?
The question of whether a mechanical device could ever be said to think – perhaps even to experience feelings, or to have a mind -is not really a new one. But it has been given a new impetus, even an urgency, by the advent of modern computer technology.
The question touches upon deep issues of philosophy. What does it mean to think or to feel? What is a mind? Do minds really exist? Assuming that they do, to what extent are minds functionally dependent upon the physical structures with which they are associated?
Might minds be able to exist quite independently of such structures? Or are they simply the unctionings of (appropriate kinds of) physical structure? In any case, is it necessary that the relevant structures be biological in nature (brains), or might minds equally well be associated with pieces of electronic equipment? Are minds subject to the laws of physics? What, indeed, are the laws of physics?
Excerpt From: Penrose, Roger.
“The Emperor’s New Mind.”