Gnomicon 216

If you have not already done so, you may wish to read the
Introduction to Gnomica.

Gnomicon  216
Friday 14 December 2012
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 The real problem is not whether machines think but whether men do.
B. F. Skinner (20 Aug 1904 – 18 Aug 1990)

Whether or not Mr. Behaviorism really meant this or was ‘thinking’ out loud with tongue in mental cheek as it were, the sentiment does give one pause. At one level of course, our modern technology did not come about through the work of idiots or the mentally challenged; the use to which it is sometimes put does, however, also give one pause.

And how are we to define ‘think’?  When Deep Blue beat world champion Kasparov at chess, was the machine actually ‘thinking’ or was it just able to calculate and analyze out to the end game with electronic speed every possible set of combinatorial operations allowed by the preprogrammed rules of chess?  If so, is that really ‘thinking’?

I have the feeling that few people would consider a hand-held calculator to be a  machine that ‘thinks’.  It does effortlessly what humans could do laboriously, and maybe even could not do unaided by some kind of machine or device or system (e.g., take the 9th root of a given number – not that I have any idea of why one would need or even want to find the 9th root of, say, 7,413,295, but that’s another matter).  Yet, is it fair or not to ask what a very, very powerful calculator like a Cray supercomputer is but a highly sophisticated version of a hand-held calculator?

On my understanding of ‘think’, neither a computer nor a calculator ‘thinks’.  Perhaps some inanimate device will one day do so, involving concepts utterly foreign, even unimaginable today.  I like to use the analogy of an educated (for the time) fifteenth-century individual having the concept of a telephone or a television explained to her: just the language to achieve this would be hard to come by, much less the conceptual framework and the actual operations of such devices.  The explicator might be deemed insane, perhaps even burned as a witch, a devil’s spawn.

Now, the second half of the statement above raises questions of its own.  Do men think?  Well, yes, in the general sense of that term, they do.  A more appropriate question might be, “Does what men think make any sense?”  Now the door of subjectivity has been flung wide open.

When you consider what goes in the political capitals of the world (our own very much included) and the kind of absurd posturing and personal animosity rampant in these venues, the best one can do is be thankful that such workings-out of these contretemps as do take place in real time do not descend to the murderously irrational (non-thinking, if you will!) levels currently on large display in Syria or northern Mali or eastern Congo and smaller shows all over the world

I don’t know if 2012 has been a more wretchedly unthinking year than usual, but at times it seems that way – depressingly so.  At the start of the month I decided just to link to some of the worst events in just the first week of the current month – and then, overwhelmed, just gave up on that relentlessly unhappy project.  The following four alone are enough to make one seriously consider “whether men do” indeed think.

Pakistan Reels With Violence Against Shiites”  New York Times  Tu 4 Dec
Off-duty cop among 11 shot in Chicago overnight”  Chicago Tribune  Tu 4 Dec
Trembling in Tbilisi”  Economist  Sa 1 Dec
Rebels in Congo demand negotiations”  Miami Herald  Sa 1 Dec

You can run your own little daily experiments by googling this and that (for example, try terms like ‘genocide in Africa’, ‘human trafficking’, ’nuclear option’, ‘Washington stalemate’ …).

Skinner’s “problem”, it appears, abides – could some operant conditioning possibly prove helpful here?

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