As you start this review, you might be reading to see whether you’d like to read more. That might seem like a simple task, yet Marvin Minsky, an artificial-intelligence pioneer, says it is in fact an orchestration of many smaller mental processes.
While you read, your eyes scan the page, and you recognize and process words and sentences. At a higher cognitive level, you might be comparing what you read with your own experiences. Higher still, you may be gauging your level of interest in the words you’re reading. Each of these processes involves still more subprocesses, and it’s this complexity that programmers in artificial intelligence strive to replicate.
In his new book, The Emotion Machine, Minsky, professor of media arts and sciences at MIT, writes, “We all admire great accomplishments in the sciences, arts, and humanities–but we rarely acknowledge how much we achieve in the course of our everyday lives.” He takes on terms we may all recognize and understand but have a hard time explaining, such as emotions, consciousness, and thinking. Minsky calls these “suitcase words”: they contain many smaller concepts that can be unpacked and analyzed. For example, he identifies more than 20 different processes involved in a single instance of being conscious of one’s own actions. By breaking down a mental state into discrete mental processes, Minsky hopes, AI programmers might one day be able to build those mental states back up, in the form of a humanlike robot.
The Emotion Machine doesn’t spend much time on actual advances in artificial intelligence. A few examples here and there tease rather than satisfy. For instance, Minsky describes how, in 1965, he and a team he headed set out to design a robot that could recognize various shapes, analyze their spatial relationships, and use that information to build structures like arches and tables out of blocks.
But in this book Minsky is less interested in AI’s history than in its future. He wants, he writes, “to find more complicated ways to explain our most familiar mental events.” Such a pursuit, he argues, includes breaking down the conventional idea of a self. Minsky believes that we do not have a central essence but, rather, a collection of neural associations and connections rooted in memory, experience, and evolution. To those who say his approach makes us machines, Minsky says that in a way, we are, and should be proud of it.
“It’s degrading or insulting to say somebody is a good person or has a soul,” he says. “Each person has built this incredibly complex structure, and if you attribute it to a magical pearl in the middle of an oyster that makes you good, that’s trivializing a person and keeps you from thinking of what’s really happening.”