Alan Turing (1912-1954) was one of the first thinkers to take the concept of artificial intelligence … [+]
Heritage Images/Getty Images
In the most direct sense, artificial intelligence is an engineering challenge. The mathematics underlying today’s cutting-edge AI algorithms is complex. The amount of computing resources required to train state-of-the-art AI models is formidable. AI is driving a whole new generation of R&D innovation in silicon.
Yet the field of artificial intelligence reaches far beyond engineering. By promising widespread automation, AI prompts fundamental questions about how we want to organize our economy and society. The pursuit of AI brings us face to face with basic, intimate questions about consciousness, intelligence, creativity: in short, what it means to be human.
Anyone hoping to get her arms around what artificial intelligence will mean for the world in the twenty-first century must engage with perspectives and issues from disciplines including engineering, psychology, economics, sociology, and philosophy.
Below we present a selection of quotes on these topics from many of the world’s greatest thinkers. The hope is that these quotes will help illuminate the scope of the field, the contours of the challenges ahead, and the enormity of the stakes.
“The question is not whether intelligent machines can have any emotions, but whether machines can be intelligent without any emotions.”
—Marvin Minsky, 1986
“The ever accelerating progress of technology and changes in the mode of human life give the appearance of approaching some essential singularity in the history of the race beyond which human affairs, as we know them, could not continue.”
—John von Neumann, 1958 (the first known use of the word “singularity” in the context of technological progress)
“For more than 250 years the fundamental drivers of economic growth have been technological innovations. The most important of these are what economists call general-purpose technologies — a category that includes the steam engine, electricity, and the internal combustion engine. The most important general-purpose technology of our era is artificial intelligence, particularly machine learning.”
—Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, 2018
“Nobody phrases it this way, but I think that artificial intelligence is almost a humanities discipline. It is really an attempt to understand human intelligence and human cognition.”
—Sebastian Thrun, 2013
“The hardest problems we have to face do not come from philosophical questions about whether brains are machines or not. There is not the slightest reason to doubt that brains are anything other than machines with enormous numbers of parts that work in perfect accord with physical laws. As far as anyone can tell, our minds are merely complex processes. The serious problems come from our having had so little experience with machines of such complexity that we are not yet prepared to think effectively about them.”
—Marvin Minsky, 1986
“If the human brain were so simple that we could understand it, we would be so simple that we couldn’t.”
—Attributed to Emerson M. Pugh, 1977
“Some people worry that artificial intelligence will make us feel inferior, but then, anybody in his right mind should have an inferiority complex every time he looks at a flower.”
“The human race might easily permit itself to drift into a position of such dependence on the machines that it would have no practical choice but to accept all of the machines’ decisions. As society and the problems that face it become more and more complex and machines become more and more intelligent, people will let machines make more of their decisions for them, simply because machine-made decisions will bring better results than man-made ones. Eventually a stage may be reached at which the decisions necessary to keep the system running will be so complex that human beings will be incapable of making them intelligently. At that stage the machines will be in effective control.”
—Ted Kaczynski (the Unabomber), 1995
“In the literal sense, the programmed computer understands what the car or the adding machine understand: namely, exactly nothing.”
—John Searle, 1980
“It is customary to offer a grain of comfort, in the form of a statement that some peculiarly human characteristic could never be imitated by a machine. I cannot offer any such comfort, for I believe that no such bounds can be set.”
—Alan Turing, 1951
“How do you know that when I speak to you, what you call ‘thinking’ is going on inside me? The Turing test is a fantastic probe — something like a particle accelerator in physics. Just as in physics, when you want to understand what is going on at an atomic or subatomic level, since you can’t see it directly, you scatter accelerated particles off the target in question and observe their behavior. From this you infer the internal nature of the target. The Turing test extends this idea to the mind. It treats the mind as a ‘target’ that is not directly visible but whose structure can be deduced more abstractly. By ‘scattering’ questions off a target mind, you learn about its internal workings, just as in physics.”
—Douglas Hofstadter, 1981
“Artificial intelligence is one of the most profound things we’re working on as humanity. It is more profound than fire or electricity.”
—Sundar Pichai, 2020