Dr. Dobb's is part of the Informa Tech Division of Informa PLC

This site is operated by a business or businesses owned by Informa PLC and all copyright resides with them. Informa PLC's registered office is 5 Howick Place, London SW1P 1WG. Registered in England and Wales. Number 8860726.

Channels ▼

Jocelyn Paine

Dr. Dobb's Bloggers

Consciousness is not a Window

April 19, 2009

I've been reading The Media Lab: Inventing the Future at M.I.T., by Stewart Brand. It includes conversations with Marvin Minsky, one of the founders of Artificial Intelligence. And Minsky has staggering ideas. "Imagine," he commands, "what it would be like if TV actually were good. It would be the end of everything we know." I want to show you his ideas about consciousness and the evolution of AI, in this discussion with Brand.

"What happened to artificial intelligence?" I asked. "How come thirty years later it's still trying to succeed?" AI was set up as a receding goal, Minsky replied, "a way of asking, 'What are the twenty most important ways the mind works?' 'Intelligence' is a collection of a lot of mysteries. 'Artificial' just means we can make other things than people do them, so we can explore the horizon of unsolved problems in psychology and computer science. Another advantage back then was that psychologists were so repelled by the idea of artificial intelligence that they didn't consider it competition. They would have if we'd called it Cognitive Something.

"Has any of this cleared up what consciousness is or is for?" I asked. "People have such a small number of memory registers," Minsky said, "that we can't think of much. Everything has to be on automatic. Consciousness is not a window. It's more like a debugging trace you use for reprogramming around problems. Humans are really amazing, considering. Just think of what we must be the next step toward. Imagine having a four-megabit consciousness chip in your head."

Me: "Do you have a standard timeline for when machine intelligence catches up with human intelligence and goes rolling on past?"

Minsky: "Yeah. Between 100 and 500 years. Intelligent evolution is unprecedented. Nobody's ever seen one. So in few hundred years it could do trillions of years of ordinary slow evolution." Me: "And make enormous mistakes." Minsky: "That's the trouble. There's no time to iron out the bugs. It might fill up the universe with styrofoam or something because it has some wrong ideas about how the cosmos needs a shock absorber."


Related Reading

More Insights

Currently we allow the following HTML tags in comments:

Single tags

These tags can be used alone and don't need an ending tag.

<br> Defines a single line break

<hr> Defines a horizontal line

Matching tags

These require an ending tag - e.g. <i>italic text</i>

<a> Defines an anchor

<b> Defines bold text

<big> Defines big text

<blockquote> Defines a long quotation

<caption> Defines a table caption

<cite> Defines a citation

<code> Defines computer code text

<em> Defines emphasized text

<fieldset> Defines a border around elements in a form

<h1> This is heading 1

<h2> This is heading 2

<h3> This is heading 3

<h4> This is heading 4

<h5> This is heading 5

<h6> This is heading 6

<i> Defines italic text

<p> Defines a paragraph

<pre> Defines preformatted text

<q> Defines a short quotation

<samp> Defines sample computer code text

<small> Defines small text

<span> Defines a section in a document

<s> Defines strikethrough text

<strike> Defines strikethrough text

<strong> Defines strong text

<sub> Defines subscripted text

<sup> Defines superscripted text

<u> Defines underlined text

Dr. Dobb's encourages readers to engage in spirited, healthy debate, including taking us to task. However, Dr. Dobb's moderates all comments posted to our site, and reserves the right to modify or remove any content that it determines to be derogatory, offensive, inflammatory, vulgar, irrelevant/off-topic, racist or obvious marketing or spam. Dr. Dobb's further reserves the right to disable the profile of any commenter participating in said activities.

Disqus Tips To upload an avatar photo, first complete your Disqus profile. | View the list of supported HTML tags you can use to style comments. | Please read our commenting policy.