In recent years, the 1980s-era philosophical discussions about artificial intelligence (AI)—whether computers can “really” think, be conscious, and so on—have led to new conversations about how we should deal with the forms of artificial intelligence that many argue have already been implemented. These AIs, if they achieve “superintelligence” (per Nick Bostrom’s 2014 book of that name), could pose existential risks, leading to what Martin Rees has termed “our final hour.” Stephen Hawking recently made international headlines when he told the BBC that “the development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race.”



But wait! Shouldn’t we also ask what machines that think might think about? Will they want, will they expect, civil rights? Will they have consciousness? What kind of government would an AI choose for us? What kind of society would they want to structure for themselves? Or is “their” society “our” society? Will we and the AIs include each other within our respective circles of empathy?

Numerous Edgies have been at the forefront of the science behind the various flavors of AI, either in their research or their writings. AI was front and center in conversations between Pamela McCorduck (Machines Who Think) and Isaac Asimov (Machines That Think) at our initial meetings in 1980. And such conversations have continued unabated, as is evident in the recent Edge feature “The Myth of AI,” a conversation with Virtual Reality pioneer Jaron Lanier, whose explication of the fallacies involved and fears evoked by conceiving of computers as “people” evoked rich and provocative commentaries.

Is AI becoming increasingly real? Are we now in a new era of intelligent machines? It’s time to grow up as we consider this issue. This year’s contributors to the Edge Question (there are close to 200 of them!) are a grown-up bunch and have eschewed mention of all that science fiction and all those movies: Star Maker, Forbidden Planet, Colossus: The Forbin Project, Blade Runner, 2001, Her, The Matrix, “The Borg.” And eighty years after Alan Turing introduced his Universal Machine, it’s time to honor Turing and other AI pioneers by giving them a well-deserved rest. We know the history. (See, for instance, George Dyson’s 2004 Edge feature, “Turing’s Cathedral.”) What’s going on NOW?

So, once again, with appropriate rigor, the Edge Question, 2015: What do you think about machines that think?


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