Professor and director, Center for Internet Research, University of Haifa, Israel

Thinking machines aren’t here yet. But they’ll let us know if and when they surface. And that’s the point. Thinking machines are about communication.

By thinking, machines might be saved from the tragic role in which they’ve been cast in human culture. For centuries, thinking machines were both a looming threat and a receding target. At once, the thinking machine is perennially just beyond our grasp, continually sought after, and repeatedly waved threateningly in dystopic caveats. For decades, the field of artificial intelligence suffered the syndrome of moving goalposts. As soon as an intelligence development target was reached, it was redefined, and consequently no longer recognized as “intelligent.” This process took place with calculating and playing trivia, as well as with more serious games, like chess. It was the course followed by voice- and picture-recognition, natural-language understanding, and translation. As the development horizon keeps expanding, we become harder and harder to impress. So the goal of “thinking,” like the older one of “intelligence,” can use some thought: forethought.

We shouldn’t limit discussion merely to thinking; we should think about discussion too. Information is more than just data, being less voluminous and more relevant. Knowledge goes beyond mere information by being applicable, not just abundant. Wisdom is knowing how not to get into binds for which smarts only indicate the escape routes. And thinking? Thinking needs data, information, and knowledge but also requires communication and interaction. Thinking is about asking questions, not just answering them.

Communication and interaction are the new location for the goalposts. Thinking about thinking transcends smarts and wisdom. Thinking implies consciousness and sentience. And here data, information—even knowledge, calculation, memory, and perception—are not enough. For a machine to think, it will need to be curious, creative, and communicative. I have no doubt this will happen. Soon. But the cycle will be completed only once machines can converse: phrase, pose, and rephrase questions that we now marvel at their ability only to answer.

Machines that think could be a great idea. Just like machines that move, cook, reproduce, protect, they can make our lives easier and perhaps even better. When they do, they’ll be most welcome. I suspect that when this happens, the event will be less dramatic or traumatic than feared by some. A thinking machine will only really happen when it’s able to inform us, as well as perceive, contain, and process reactions. A true thinking machine will even console the traumatized and provide relief for the drama.

Thinking machines will be worth thinking about—ergo, will really think—when they truly interact. In other words, they’ll really think only when they say so, convincingly, on their own initiative, and (one hopes) after they’ve discussed it among themselves. Machines will think in the full sense of the word once they form communities and join in ours. If and when machines care enough to do so, and form a bond that gets others excited enough to talk it over with them, they’ll have passed the “thinking” test.

Note that this is a higher bar than the one set by Turing. Like thinking, interaction is something not all people do, and most do not do well. If and when machines interact in a rich, rewarding, and resonating manner that’s possible but rare even among humans, we’ll have something to truly worry about—or, in my view, mostly celebrate.

Machines that calculate, remember, even create and conjecture amazingly well are yesterday’s news. Machines will think when they communicate. Machines that think will converse with one another as well as with other sentient beings. They’ll autonomously create messages and thread them into ongoing relations; they will then successfully and independently react to outside stimuli. Much like intelligent pets, who many would swear are capable of both thinking and maintaining relationships, intelligent synthetic devices will “think,” once they can convince enough of us to contemplate and accept the fact that they’re indeed thinking.

Machines that talk, remember, amuse, or fly were all feared not too long ago and are now commonplace, no longer considered magic or unique. The making and proof of thinking machines, as well as the consolation for machines encroaching on the most human of domains, will be in a deconstruction of the remaining frontier—that of communication. Synthesizing interaction may prove to be the last frontier. And when machines do it well, they’ll do the advocacy for themselves.