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People should remember this when they are tempted to insist that “of course” Kasparov plays chess in a way entirely different from how a computer plays the game. What on earth could provoke someone to go out on a limb like that? Wishful thinking? Fear?

In an editorial written at the time of the Deep Blue match, “Mind over Matter” (May 10, 1997), the New York Times opined:

The real significance of this over-hyped chess match is that it is forcing us to ponder just what, if anything, is uniquely human. We prefer to believe that something sets us apart from the machines we devise. Perhaps it is found in such concepts as creativity, intuition, consciousness, esthetic or moral judgment, courage or even the ability to be intimidated by Deep Blue.

The ability to be intimidated? Is that really one of our prized qualities? Yes, according to the Times:

Nobody knows enough about such characteristics to know if they are truly beyond machines in the very long run, but it is nice to think that they are.

Why is it nice to think this? Why isn’t it just as nice–or nicer–to think that we human beings might succeed in designing and building brain­children that are even more wonderful than our biologically begotten children? The match between Kasparov and Deep Blue didn’t settle any great metaphysical issue, but it certainly exposed the weakness in some widespread opinions. Many people still cling, white-­knuckled, to a brittle vision of our minds as mysterious immaterial souls, or–just as romantic–as the products of brains composed of ­wonder tissue engaged in irreducible non­computational (perhaps alchemical?) processes. They often seem to think that if our brains were in fact just protein machines, we couldn’t be responsible, lovable, valuable persons.

Finding that conclusion attractive doesn’t show a deep understanding of responsibility, love, and value; it shows a shallow appreciation of the powers of machines with trillions of moving parts.

Daniel Dennett is the codirector of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University, where he is also a professor of philosophy.

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Tagged: Computing

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