You needn't have taken a philosophy course to see "A.I.," the new
Steven Spielberg movie, but you may wish you'd enrolled in
Philosophy 101 by the time you exit the cinema.
"A.I." (Artificial Intelligence), is a futuristic story in which
a robot resembling an 11-year-old boy embarks on a Pinocchio-like
quest to become human. Mr. Spielberg's movie posits the idea that
machines can develop self-awareness, and even understand love.
Is Spielberg's premise as far-fetched as "E.T." flying a bicycle
past the moon? Not according to Ray Kurzweil, who is something of a
superstar in the AI community, currently made up of hundreds of
corporations and universities across the world. In his book "The Age
of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence,"
Dr. Kurzweil predicts that computers will come to replicate the
full range of human intelligence.
It's the astonishing growth in real-world artificial-
intelligence technology that is forcing thinkers, theologians,
philosophers, and the public to reexamine some age-old fundamental
philosophical questions with a new vigor and urgency. Is it
possible to replicate human consciousness in machines? If so, then
what does that tell us about consciousness? What does it mean to be
"What's really at issue in the debate are fundamental
metaphysical theological convictions about the fundamental reality
of things - is mind reducible to mechanism or to computation?" says
Jay Richards, co-editor of the forthcoming book "Are We Spiritual
Machines?" for the Seattle-based Discovery Institute. "The great
thing about [artificial intelligence] is that there aren't a lot of
subjects that can bring high-level philosophical disputes into the
And for some, solving these questions while AI is still in its
incipient stages is critical.
"If your grandmother was cuddling a [robot toy] Furby and feeling
this incredible attachment to it, are you cool with that?" asks
Sherry Turkel, a professor of the sociology of science at the
Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. "We're at a
moment in history where ... you can have some people thinking it's
totally unproblematic to have these kinds of relationships with
robotic objects, and some people like me who still feel, 'can we
talk about this?' "
It's important to define who we are now, and to define whether a
machine can possess true consciousness, says Dr. Turkel, before the
difference between human and machine becomes too blurred.
"If history is correct, we will continue to define who we are in
relationship to what we see as close to us," says Turkel. "We will
define what's special about ourselves in relation to these robots."
The relationship between man and machine is already changing.
"[AI] is creeping into our lives in ways that we're starting to
become aware of," says Tom Mitchell, the incoming president of the
American Association for Artificial Intelligence. "I had a phone
conversation with a computer the other day. It wasn't a very
interesting conversation, but I called the information number and
it asked me which city and listing."
Shifting from practical to intelligent machines
The vast majority of AI research is focused on practical
applications, but developments like this sort of voice-recognition
software have shifted the threshold of what we now take for
granted, coloring the way everyman views philosophical debates
about sentient computers, according to Mr. Mitchell.
Leslie Pack Kaelbling, associate director of the MIT Artificial
Intelligence Laboratory, notes that we already talk as if the
simplest of machines were intelligent: "You talk about your
thermostat thinking it's too hot in here, and it needs to be
Dr. Kaelbling says that she doesn't see any reason why we won't
be able to make a machine that's indistinguishable from a human in
the future. …