Yet More Incoherent Thinking about AI

I’ve written before about how sloppy and incoherent a lot of popular writing about artificial intelligence is, for example here and here — even by people who should know better.

Here’s yet another example, a a letter to the editor published in CACM (Communications of the ACM).

The author, a certain Arthur Gardner, claims “my iPhone seemed to understand what I was saying, but it was illusory”. But nowhere does Mr. Gardner explain why it was “illusory”, nor how he came to believe Siri did not really “understand”, nor even what his criteria for “understanding” are.

He goes on to claim that “The code is clever, that is, cleverly designed, but just code.” I am not really sure how a computer program can be something other than what it is, namely “code” (jargon for “a program”), or even why Mr. Gardner thinks this is a criticism of something.

Mr. Gardner states “Neither the chess program nor Siri has awareness or understanding”. But, lacking rigorous definitions of “awareness” or “understanding”, how can Mr. Gardner (or anyone else) make such claims with authority? I would say, for example, that Siri does exhibit rudimentary “awareness” because it responds to its environment. When I call its name, it responds. As for “understanding”, again I say that Siri exhibits rudimentary “understanding” because it responds appropriately to many of my utterances. If I say, “Siri, set alarm for 12:30” it understands me and does what I ask. What other meanings of “awareness” and “understanding” does Mr. Gardner appeal to?

Mr. Gardner claims “what we are doing — reading these words, asking maybe, “Hmmm, what is intelligence?” is something no machine can do.” But why? It’s easy to write a program that will do exactly that: read words and type out “Hmmm, what is intelligence?” So what, specifically, is the distinction Mr. Gardner is appealing to?

He then says, “That which actually knows, cares, and chooses is the spirit, something every human being has. It is what distinguishes us from animals and from computers.” First, there’s the usual “actually” dodge. It never matters to the AI skeptic how smart a computer is, it is still never “actually” thinking. Of course, what “actual” thinking is, no one can ever tell me. Then there’s the appeal to the “spirit”, a nebulous, incoherent thingy that no one has ever shown to exist. And finally, there’s the absurd claim that whatever a “spirit” is, it’s lacking in animals. How does Mr. Gardner know that for certain? Has he ever observed any primates other than humans? They exhibit, as we can read in books like Chimpanzee Politics, many of the same kinds of “aware” and “intelligent” behaviors that humans indulge in.

This is just more completely incoherent drivel about artificial intelligence, no doubt driven by religion and the need to feel special. Why anyone thought this was worth publishing is beyond me.