Computers are not persons because computers do not think

Recently Director of the Walter Bradley Center Robert J. Marks interviewed human dignity advocate Wesley J. Smith on the seemingly science fiction question of “Can a computer be a person?” (November 10, 2022, podcast 212):

Here are a few highlights:

About Alexa:

Wesley J. Smith: I wanted to ask you about Alexa because she can come in behind me. Of course she’s not a female. It’s just a woman’s voice. But I can ask, we call her A, so she doesn’t find out what time it is and she tells me right away. I can ask her to play certain music and she will play it immediately. How does it work? I mean, she’s not… That program isn’t intelligent, is it?

Robert J. Marks: No, it’s not. We go back to something there John Searle mentioned that the reason why AI cannot understand. He said that, I don’t know Chinese, but imagine me in a room with a lot of filing cabinets and through the doors slipped a small question written in Chinese. And he said, “I’m going to these filing cabinets, and I’m going to look until I get a match. I don’t know what it says, but I’m going to look until I get a match, and I’m going to copy the answer down , and I will throw that answer in Chinese through the door.”

That Chinese room experiment:

Robert J. Marks: Now, from the outside, it looks like what’s inside the room knows Chinese, understands Chinese, and it’s just amazing. But Searle in space doesn’t understand Chinese. It’s the same with Alexa. When you ask Alexa about a problem, it’s in this huge space that probably includes all of Wikipedia. We have the memory and we have the computational resources to do this now. It’s in this huge room. It does some speech recognition on your voice and it goes to this big giant room and it looks through all these filing cabinets until it finds the answer that it thinks you want.

Wesley J. Smith: It “thinks”. Is that correct terminology there? It thinks that I will?

Robert J. Marks: Well, maybe “thinks” isn’t the right word, but I’d say Alexa cranks it up a lot.

Wesley J. Smith: Yes, but it is programmed to give the answer that its past programming, its past experience, seems to indicate is correct. Is that a good way to say it?

Robert J. Marks: Yes Yes.

What makes AI so powerful?

Robert J. Marks: That’s number one, the algorithms. And we should define an algorithm since we are going to use it.

Wesley J. Smith: It is true. That is my next question.

Robert J. Marks: Okay. An algorithm is a step-by-step procedure for doing something. If Google Maps, when they tell you how to get from point A to point B, give you an algorithm. You go down I-35 for two miles, take exit 32A, take a right at the light, et cetera, et cetera. So it’s a step-by-step procedure to do something.

An algorithm is nothing more than a recipe. In the book I use the example of a German chocolate cake. You have the input, which is all the ingredients in the cake, but then you have the algorithm, the step-by-step procedure that you have to do to make the cake. You put the mixture and stir in the milk and do all this. So it’s an algorithm.

Now it turns out that all computers can do is algorithmic. If something is non-algorithmic, it cannot be calculated. And if it can’t be calculated, it’s something computers can’t do. And the interesting thing is that this applies not only to today’s computers, but to yesterday’s computers and the computers of the future. No matter how fast, no matter how incredible they do, they still won’t be able to do things that cannot be calculated.

It was shown back in the 1930s by Alan Turing that there were certain problems that could not be calculated. Most undergraduate computer scientists are introduced to this through something called a stalling problem.

Without going into details, Turing showed mathematically that this could not be calculated.

There have since been a variety of things that have been shown to be non-computable, meaning that it cannot be done by a computer. Now, if that is the case, we must ask ourselves, are there things that humans do that cannot be calculated? And those I would argue include sensing, awareness, understanding and creativity.

Dr. Marks’ book is Non-calculable you: What you do that artificial intelligence never will (Discovery Institute Press, 2022). An excerpt is available here (Chapter 2).

Additional resources

Download podcast transcript

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