Thursday, May 9, 2013

Philosophy of Artificial Intelligence from a Cartesian Perspective

The question of whether or not an inanimate object could hold any type of conscious state has always been a question in today’s modern culture. First examples of bringing back consciousness to an object that is no longer capable of thought can be found in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which shined the lime light on science’s ability to manipulate humanity environment and play a God like figure in its creation. However, even before this question was engraved into the sub consciousness of the general population in the form of science fiction, there already was a variation of this question that has been debated over 300 years by René Descartes. Descartes questioned whether or not machines (animals) hold the same reasoning faculties as men, and this can be traced to his book Discourse on the Method for Conducting One’s Reason Well and for Seeking the Truth in the Sciences in Mediation Three: Concerning God that He Exist in Part 5.  The question, if machines (animals) hold any mode of consciousness, was a question that he pondered in his meditations. In his meditations, he created two ways to differentiate whether or not machines hold the same faculties as men. This paper seeks to understand if these two methods are applicable in evaluating artificial intelligence in today’s terms and perspectives, and if these two rules still function when we look at them though the lenses of today’s technological advancements.
René Descartes, in 1641, published Discourse on the Method for Conducting One’s Reason Well and for Seeking the Truth in the Sciences. In Mediation Three: Concerning God that He Exist and it illuminates the way for the modern era by introducing the notion that men can regard their thoughts as mental environments that can manipulate modes of thought where Descartes states that “I am a thing that thinks” (Ariew 47).  From this Cartesian perspective of knowing that I, myself am a conscious and thinking being raises the question of if it is possible for me to know whether or not my fellow man or the animals that appear to have inherited the same Earth as myself are also conscious, thinking, and rational beings. By using René Descartes model of testing consciousness in machines to understand whether or not such said system holds a state of self-awareness in the Discourse on the Method for Conducting One’s Reason Well and for Seeking the Truth in the Sciences; and to understand whether or not this method still applies to current day machines, and if not what aspects of if still hold true, and what components of his method have failed do to advancements in technology in the twenty first century.
René Descartes first developed in Discourse on the Method for Conducting One’s Reason Well and for Seeking the Truth in the Sciences a method to distinguish between machine (animals) and human consciousness.  In his method, he creates two categorical rules that divide humans and animals into two categories, those that are considered conscious – humans, and those that are simply composed of mechanical parts that constitute a living entity without a soul. However, Descartes never intended his abstraction of animal machines to be taken literally in today’s society – not that animals are machines, we are developing computer systems that are starting to mimic neural networks that could one day take on a form of consciousness. That is autonomous to the code that was created by humanity (Krogh 195 -197). The two rules are as follows:
“First is that they could never use words or other signs, or put them together as we do in order to declare our thoughts to others” (Ariew 33).  
“The second means is that, although they might perform many task very well or perhaps better than any of us, such machines would inevitably fail in other tasks by this means one would discover that they were acting, not through knowledge, but only through the disposition of their organs” (Ariew 33).
“For while reason is a universal instrument that can be of help in all sorts of circumstances, these organs require some particular disposition for each particular action; consequently, it is for all practical purposes impossible for there to be enough different organs in a machine to make it act in all the contingencies of life in the same way as our reason makes us act” (Ariew 33).
       To paraphrase the words of René Descartes if there was a “machine” that resembles our bodily structure and imitated our actions, then according to Descartes we would have two methods of differentiation on now we could separate our fellow humans from our counter machines. The first method states that this machine could not use any other abstract signs that are not already pre-programmed into its being. Thus, it would not be able to abstract an original sentences or words that have not been already thought up by another man.  The second method implies that there is not enough room for the organs, or components of the machine to fit inside one machine entity to give it the ability to reason through every contingent event that the machine were to encounter. Thus, it is impossible for this machine to act in all contingencies of life in the same capacity that our reason allows us to act in those same events.
     Thus, to René Descartes, the ability to fit every possible mechanism and component into a machine was technologically impossible. However, Descartes was not aware of the technological laws that govern our modern society, and fuel today’s technological revolutions and innovations. These laws are the driving force of technological advancement in the 20th and 21st century, and they depend on the fundamental principle of exponential growth, which is now called the Law of Accelerating Returns.  To understand the Law of Accelerating Returns, the reader needs a basic understanding of what it means to grow something or a number exponentially. In this example, I am going to use the story of the Chinese emperor’s favorite game, chess, and his reward to the inventor of the game. The story goes something like this: The Chinese emperor loved the game of chess so much that he wanted to show his gratitude to the inventor. Thus, he said to the inventor, “I will give you anything in my kingdom. Just ask, and it shall be yours.” The inventor replied, “All that I ask is that you place one grain of rice on the first block of the chess board, and then two pieces of rice on the second block then four pieces on the third block, doubling the numbers of rice until you fill all 64 blocks of the chess board.” The emperor thought it was a modest request, said “okay” and granted it. After doubling each piece of rice 63 times the emperor went bankrupt, and the inventor had 18 million trillion grains of rice that required rice fields that covered the surface of the Earth twice, including the oceans.
        Now we can use the same concept of exponential growth and apply it to the growth of computer systems.[1] To first understand the Law of Accelerated Returns and how it applies to the exponential growth of computer systems, we need to have a grasp on where it first originated in the biological context.  The law of accelerating returns by Ray Kurzweil states that:
 1. Evolution applies positive feedback in that the more capable methods resulting from one stage of evolutionary progress are used to create the next stage.
2. As a result, the rate of progress of an evolutionary process increases exponentially over time. Over time, the “order” of the information embedded in the evolutionary process (i.e., the measure of how well the information fits a purpose, which in evolution is survival) increases.
3. A correlate of the above observation is that the “returns” of an evolutionary process (e.g., the speed, cost-effectiveness, or overall “power” of a process) increase exponentially over time.
4. In another positive feedback loop, as a particular evolutionary process (e.g., computation) becomes more effective (e.g., cost effective), greater resources are deployed toward the further progress of that process. This results in a second level of exponential growth (i.e., the rate of exponential growth itself grows exponentially).

While there is more to the Law of Accelerated Returns, for this paper we only need to know the first four facts.  The first point states that the evolution of each organism is based or builds upon the evolution of its predecessors. Thus, without the evolution of its past predecessor, the evolution of the future organism could not continue or, in some cases, even exist. The easiest way to think about this is to visualize the construction of a skyscraper. If you remove the concrete from the construction, you would not have a foundation or the columns to support the weight of the building. The same is applied to the Law of Accelerating Returns; if you removed one building block the whole system will fail.  The second and third point can be condensed into one explanation. As the complexity of an organism increases, as does the time at which new evolutionary milestones are met within a shorter period of time, accelerating with every evolutionary step it takes.
To summarize the words of Kurzweil, the evolution of life took billions of years for the first building blocks to form, then followed primitive cells and the process slowly started to accelerate as these single cell organisms turned into a multi cellular organism until we reach the Cambrian explosion, which took approximately tens of millions of years. Later, Humanoids developed over a period of millions of years and, finally, mankind during the last hundreds of thousands of years (Kurzweil).  The fourth step states that once evolution hits a certain point it starts to require more resources to further the evolution of that specific organism. Thus creating a second level of exponential growth, in other words the rate at which the original exponential growth starts to double.
Now that we have a basic understanding of how the Law of Accelerated Returns applies from an evolutionary stand point, it becomes easier to understand how accelerated returns applies to technology in the twenty-first century.  If you were to look at the first technologies man developed, it would be basic rock tools, fire, and the wheel. This growth remained fairly constant. You could compare this growth to the evolutionary growth of the first organisms, very slow and time consuming, developing the building blocks of technology that helped form modern day technology. This growth remained fairly constant until around 1000 A.D when a paradigm shift occurred, and two centuries later in the ninetieth century (Kurzweil), after the discovery of electricity in the 1800’s the exponential growth of technology truly started to manifest itself.
Finally, when the Internet was first developed, the fourth stage of Kurzweil Law of Accelerated Returns started to apply to technology and double the rate at which technology started to exponentially double (see back to the fourth law). This is where I believe you could compare it to the evolution of mankind on the timescale of evolutionary events. However, there is one final evolutionary step that we have not yet discussed – the point of Singularity. However, before we dive into the ‘what if’ possibility of the singularity, There is one last fact about exponential growth that we need to know. As we learned from the story of the Chinese emperor and the inventor of chess, once you reach a certain number raised to a power (2^2 or grains_of_rice^blocks_on_chest_board), you start to experience extremely large numbers. According to the Law of Accelerated Returns, the same can be applied to the human knowledge (human_knowledge^number_of_years). Thus, as the amount of human knowledge increases and the time at which it happens. The number of scientific breakthroughs will turn into a downhill rolling snowball of exponentially, and the downhill is time.  In the twenty-first century over the next 100 years we will experience 20,000 years of technological growth (Kurzweil).
As for the point of Singularity, Ray Kurzweil believes that technology will reach a point where it surpasses human intelligence. We can see what I believe to be the second milestone in computers surpassing the human intelligence. The first being when Deep Blue, a computer, that beat the International Master David Levy in a chess competition (Computer chess 1). The second being the creation of Watson, an artificial intelligence that beat the world’s top Jeopardy players (IBM). However, having computers surpass the human intelligence is not the full aspect of the singularity. Kurzweil believes that the point of Singularity is when both artificial intelligences become integrated with human intelligence, creating another stage in human and machine evolution where both become fused together and indistinguishable between one another.
However, in today’s context we already have human and machine integration, from basic bionic arms for wounded soldiers, to basic communication devices for people with diseases such as Lou Gerhrig's disease. One might think that these technologies represent the point of singularity, but this is only the point of horizon. Until then, we are going to continue to see smaller technologies that can be packed into a more confined space, giving these systems more processing power and the ability to interact with humans on a human level. Because of these technological laws and our ability to place more transistors into a smaller space, giving us the ability to pack more processing power into a much smaller surface area. That ultimately grants humans the theoretical ability to create a device that could hold all off the possible components of that would be equal or greater to human faculties. Because of the Law of Accelerating Returns we can say that René Descartes second method for identifying machines and their inability to hold enough components or mechanisms is an invalid form for identifying artificial intelligences in the 21st century.  Referring back to René Descartes first rule for identifying a machine, he states that
“First is that they could never use words or other signs, or put them together as we do in order to declare our thoughts to others” (Ariew 33). 
Thus, from this line of thought a machine could not reproduce or create a novel piece of work or develop or create a new type of word that has not already be developed by man and already embedded within the machine’s code to allow it to use these pieces of information that we can think of as ideas.  However René Descartes was not the only one that believed that a machine developing novel ideas was outside of its operating parameters. The Lady Lovelace’s Objection this objection states:
The Analytical Engine has no pretensions to originate anything. IT can do whatever we know how to order it to perform” (Turing 450).
There is also a simplified variant of Lady Lovelace’s Objection, which states:
“A machine could ‘never do anything really new’” (Turing 450).
Due to the analytical engine that states that machines are incapable of independent learning which could be thought of as machines are incapable of independent thinking. Because everything the machine has ‘learned’ has been programmed into the hard drive(s), which gives it the ability to remember a set algorithm that dictates the machines next move will be in either calculations or movement when we talk about robotic systems.  For example, a rudimentary algorithm for a robotic system to pick up a glass of water could possibly look like this:
Step 1:  Locate glass of water in space (If said glass of water is located then Step 2, if not repeat Step 1.)
Step 2: Calculate distance and then extend arm until hand is 1.5 inches away from glass. (If hand is 1.5 inches away from glass then Step 3, if not repeat Step 1.)
Step 3: Contract hand and lift from table. (If glass is in hand then Step 4, if not repeat Step 1.)
          However, let’s say that the robot reaches step 3 and then applies too much force to the glass and breaks it. Through this process, the machine would repeat Step 1 indefinitely and would never fulfill the algorithm and be allowed to move on to the next task.  It would also be impossible for this system to allow for any type of learning or ‘out of the box thinking’ that would give it the capability to either a.) pick up the broken pieces of glass and get a new glass or b.) come up with a creative solution for it to use another object as a glass to satisfy its thirst.
         Because René Descartes developed his method for separating machines and humans over 300 years ago, some aspects of his method no longer apply to our society due to technological growth that could not have been foreseen. Yet the first rule developed by René Descartes still holds a certain amount applicability today, and deserves recognition for its potential application in determining whether or not a machine has the ability to think creatively and learn abstract meanings that are not embedded into the machine’s code.  Even though René Descartes’ whole method is not 100 percent valid today, it is still important that we remember the first part of his contribution and how even 300 years later, the question of whether or not a machine could obtain the ability to think freely as men still holds weight in an ever advancing modern society.

Ariew, Roger, and Eric Watkins. Modern Philosophy: An Anthology of Primary Sources. 2nd ed. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2009. Print. The work by René Descartes Discourse on Method on the Method for Conducting One’s Reason Well and for Seeking the Truth in the Sciences (1637)
Krogh, Anders. "What are artificial neural networks?." Nature Biotechnology . 26. (2008): 195 - 197. Print. < are artificial neural networks?&rft.jtitle=Nature biotechnology&, Anders&>.
Kurzweil, Ray. “The Law of Accelerating Returns.” Kurzweil Accelerating Intelligence. N.p., March 7, 2001. Web. 7 Apr 2011. <>.
Turning, A.M. "Computing Machinery and Intelligence." Computing Machinery and Intelligence. 59.236 (1950): 433-460. Print. <>.

[1]  It is important to remember that the first transistor was created in 1954, 304  years after René Descartes’ death in 1650.