A.I. Has Grown Up and Left Home

David Auerbach in Nautilus:

HeadWe humans, more or less, behave like unified rational agents, with a linear style of thinking. And so, since we think of ourselves as unified, we tend to reduce ourselves not to a single body but to a single thinker, some “ghost in the machine” that animates and controls our biological body. It doesn’t have to be in the head—the Greeks put the spirit (thymos) in the chest and the breath—but it remains a single, indivisible entity, our soul living in the house of the senses and memory. Therefore, if we can be boiled to an indivisible entity, surely that entity must be contained or located somewhere. This has prompted much research looking for “the area” where thought happens. Descartes hypothesized that our immortal soul interacted with our animal brain through the pineal gland. Today, studies of brain-damaged patients (as Oliver Sacks has chronicled in his books) have shown how functioning is corrupted by damage to different parts of the brain. We know facts like, language processing occurs in Broca’s area in the frontal lobe of the left hemisphere. But some patients with their Broca’s area destroyed can still understand language, due to the immense neuroplasticity of the brain. And language, in turn, is just a part of what we call “thinking.” If we can’t even pin down where the brain processes language, we are a far way from locating that mysterious entity, “consciousness.” That may be because it doesn’t exist in a spot you can point at.

Symbolic artificial intelligence, the Cartesian theater, and the shadows of mind-body dualism plagued the early decades of research into consciousness and thinking. But eventually researchers began to throw the yoke off. Around 1960, linguistics pioneer Noam Chomsky made a bold argument: Forget about meaning, forget about thinking, just focus on syntax. He claimed that linguistic syntax could be represented formally, was a computational problem, and was universal to all humans and hard-coded into every baby’s head. The process of exposure to language caused certain switches to be flipped on or off to determine what particular form the grammar would take (English, Chinese, Inuit, and so on). But the process was one of selection, not acquisition. The rules of grammar, however they were implemented, became the target of research programs around the world, supplanting a search for “the home of thought.”

More here.