Is There Something Uncanny About Machines That Can Think?

Tania Lombrozo in

Brain-istock_custom-ecf8011bc25136a47d9f00b8477068d0768919c9-s600-c85Thinking machines are consistently in the news these days, and often a topic of discussion here at 13.7. Last week, Alva Noë came out as a singularity skeptic, and three of us contributed to's annual question for 2015: What do you think about machines that think? In response to the question, I argued that we shouldn't be chauvinists when it comes to defining thinking — that is, we should resist the temptation to restrict what counts as thinking to “thinking like adult humans” or “thinking like contemporary computers.” Marcelo Gleiser suggested that we're already living as transhumans, enhanced by our technogadgets and medical improvements. And Stuart Kauffman considered Turing machines, the quantum and human choice. In addressing the relationship between humans and thinking machines, all three of our responses — and those by many others — raised questions about what (if anything) makes us uniquely human. Part of what's fascinating about the idea of thinking machines, after all, is that they seem to approach and encroach on a uniquely human niche, homo sapiens — the wise.

Consider, for contrast, encountering “thinking” aliens, some alternative life form that rivals or exceeds our own intelligence. The experience would be strange, to be sure, but there may be something uniquely uncanny about thinking machines. While they can (or will some day) mirror us in capabilities, they are unlikely to do so in composition. My hypothetical aliens, at least, would have biological origins of some kind, whereas today's computers do so only in the sense that they are human artifacts and, therefore, have an origin that follows from our own. When it comes to human-like robots and other artifacts, some have described an “uncanny valley“: a level of similarity to natural beings that may be too close for comfort, compelling yet off. We might be slightly revolted by a mechanical appendage, for instance, or made uneasy by a realistically human robot face.

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