This past spring, Google began feeding its natural language algorithm thousands of romance novels in an effort to humanize its “conversational tone.” The move did so much to fire the collective comic imagination that the ensuing hilarity muffled any serious commentary on its symbolic importance. The jokes, as they say, practically wrote themselves. But, after several decades devoted to task-specific “smart” technologies (GPS, search engine optimization, data mining), Google’s decision points to a recovered interest among the titans of technology in a fully anthropic “general” intelligence, the kind dramatized in recent films such as Her (2013) and Ex Machina (2015). Amusing though it may be, the appeal to romance novels suggests that Silicon Valley is daring to dream big once again.
The desire to automate solutions to human problems, from locomotion (the wheel) to mnemonics (the stylus), is as old as society itself. Aristotle, for example, sought to describe the mysteries of human cognition so precisely that it could be codified as a set of syllogisms, or building blocks of knowledge, bound together by algorithms to form the high-level insights and judgments that we ordinarily associate with intelligence.
Two millennia later, the German polymath Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz dreamed of a machine called the calculus ratiocinator that would be programmed according to these syllogisms in the hope that, thereafter, all of the remaining problems in philosophy could be resolved with a turn of the crank.
But there is more to intelligence than logic. Logic, after all, can only operate on already categorized signs and symbols. Even if we very generously grant that we are, as Descartes claimed in 1637, essentially thinking machines divided into body and mind, and even if we grant that the mind is a tabula rasa, as Locke argued a half-century later, the question remains: How do categories and content—the basic tools and materials of logic—come to mind in the first place? How, in other words, do humans comprehend and act upon the novel and the unknown? Such questions demand a fully contoured account of the brain—how it responds to its environment, how it makes connections, and how it encodes memories.
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