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Daily RC Article 147

Contemplating Machine Sentience: Replicating the Human Brain in AI


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Has the artificial intelligentsia shown that the intelligent and sentient human brain is really a computer? Some artificial intelligentsia members believe so. Marvin Minsky argues that in time we will understand the human brain structure sufficiently well to reproduce it in machine form. Ray Kurzweill concurs “By the third decade of the 21st century, we will create detailed maps of the computationally relevant features of the human brain and re-create these designs in advanced neural computers.”

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Many agree that the distinction between mind and machine is blurred. The human mind is nothing but a system of organs of computation. For Daniel Dennett, ‘Conscious human minds are more-or-less serial virtual machines implemented – inefficiently – on the parallel hardware that evolution has provided for us. If all the phenomena of human consciousness are explicable as just the activities of a virtual machine realized in the astronomically adjustable connections of a human brain, a suitably programmed robot, with a silicon-based computer brain, would be conscious, would have a self. There would be a conscious self whose body was a robot and whose brain was a computer.’

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However, others have questioned whether it is technically feasible to understand the human brain, let alone reproduce it in artificial form. Charles Jonscher points to the complexity of the human brain as compared to the computer. …Jonscher believes that there exists a cultural divide between biology and computer science: “Computer engineers talk of matching the power of the brain. Biologists look into their microscopes and wonder if we have matched the computational power of a single one of its cells.”

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… Perhaps in 50 years time, we will have unravelled the mysteries of neuronal connections, as Minsky and Kurzweill believe, and managed to build machines equally complex. We (or our children) will then wonder how humans could possibly have thought the brain too complex to comprehend. …At the heart of John Searle’s argument is the distinction between syntax and semantics. Syntax refers to the rules by which symbols may be manipulated, and which tell me whether a string of symbols is well formed or ill-formed. … Syntax refers to the structure of a language (or a system of formal logic), semantics to its content. Syntax is the outside of a sentence, semantics its innards.

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What does the distinction between syntax and semantics mean for the question of machine sentience? A computer, when it computes, manipulates symbols. Its programme specifies a set of rules or algorithms, which tell it how to transform one set of symbols into another. But it does not specify what those symbols mean. Indeed, to a computer meaning is irrelevant. A computer programme restructures the outside of a symbolic string, without worrying too much about what is on the inside. For humans, however, the inside is crucial. In all speech, Ben Johnson wrote, words and sense are as the body and soul. The sense is as the life and soul of language without which all words are dead. The dualism of body and soul may be unfashionable but the dualism of which Johnson speaks, the dualism of words and sense, is the one we cannot do without. To a human, meaning is everything. When we communicate, we communicate meaning.

The artificial intelligentsia debates replicating the human brain's computational features in machines. Some believe it's feasible, echoing Dennett's view that suitably programmed robots could exhibit consciousness. However, skeptics note the brain's complexity surpassing current computer capabilities. Searle's distinction between symbol manipulation and understanding meaning fuels the discussion on whether replicating brain functions in machines can truly encapsulate human sentience.
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