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Can computers really think?

technofile  by al fasoldt

Columns and commentaries in a life-long dance with technology

Simple gray rule

Can computers really think? Only if they have a sense of humor

Technofile for May 18, 1997

By Al Fasoldt

Copyright © 1997, The Syracuse Newspapers

When IBM's Deep Blue computer defeated chess champ Gary Kasparov last week, the victory seemed to mark the coming of age of a new kind of computer—one that can think well enough to outsmart one of the most brilliant minds of our era.

But that's not what happened. Cleverly written software beat a chess champion in a game that computers can play quite well. That's all.

The idea that computers can think is hogwash. Computers have a hard enough time doing what they do best—calculating, adding and multiplying digits, pushing bits of information here and there, splashing pictures on your screen. They're not equipped to think.

Yet this idea that a really sophisticated software program can make a computer think persists in our popular culture. We seem ready to ignore everything we know about computers just to give them a touch of human personality.

A child of 3 years old thinks. A child that age adapts to the environment, learns new responses, discards unsuccessful techniques and knows how to tease.

Find a computer that can tease.

Want another example? Your Uncle Henry has more brains in his sleep than any computer does. That's because he dreams.

Find a computer that dreams.

What we know about thinking is almost nothing. But we know about computers fills thousands of books. That's why we tend to be smug about a dangerous topic. If we know a lot about something, we feel close to it. If we can understand something, we can assign a rating to it. We can turn it into something familiar.

How does your computer know that you just misspelled a word? Well, it looks up the letters you typed in a hash table, computes the checksums, zeros out the rigmarole and diddles with the flangerang. Or something like that. Trust me, the technospeak is gruesome, but the process is not that hard to follow.

How do you feel about the Detroit Tigers? What do you think of sunsets over the ocean? Have you ever really fallen in love?

Beep! Beep!

That's what you'd get from Deep Blue. The rest of us, humans all, would be able to write essays or sing songs about sunsets and love—and maybe even the Tigers.

Computers that think? Pshaw. Give me computers that know how to open up the same window in the same place on my screen twice in a row. Or that know how tired I am on Thursday mornings. Or that know how to laugh.

That last part—the element of humor—is the only area in which I'll give a computer an even break. I made up my mind the other day when I saw a cartoon someone passed along in the office mail.

It showed a message from Hal, Arthur C. Clarke's mastermind computer from "2001."

"Gentlemen," Hal says in the cartoon, "I have just decided to remove Windows 95 from my hard disk."

Now that, as my Macintosh friends would say, is a thinking computer.

A reader suggests my column ignores the prospect of intelligence in computers.

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