March 1998
Back to Op Ed

To the Editor:

Astro Teller (Op-Ed, March 21) should be assured that there is no concern that “smart machines” are on the verge of replicating the functions of the human brain.

While artificial-intelligence scientists are being forced to design miniaturized circuitry for their “think machines” that replicate the brain’s cellular format, all of this research has a fundamental flaw.

Artificial-intelligence investigation is based on advanced solid-state physics, whereas the humble human brain is a viable, semiliquid system! Have no fear. The artificial human mind is not here, nor will it be.

Cleveland, March 23, 1998

The writer is a professor of neurosurgery at Case Western Reserve.

Institutional Change

To the Editor:

Astro Teller (Op-Ed, March 21) would like to pin the Luddite label on those of us who are concerned about the effect of artificial intelligence on jobs.

He claims that “when some jobs disappear, others are created.”

Yes, farmers displaced by the Industrial Revolution found work in factories, and more recently assembly-line workers have migrated to the service sector. But what happens when intelligent agents sift through vast data banks to do most of our knowledge work? What type of work comes after the knowledge sector?

We can only “profit as a species” when our economic and social institutions adapt to these new technologies. Mr. Teller fails to appreciate the institutional change that must occur if these new technologies are to benefit more than just the favored few.

Bellevue, Wash., March 23, 1998

The writer is an economics instructor at Bellevue Community College.

Measure of Man

To the Editor:
Re “Smart Machines, and Why We Fear Them”(Op-Ed, March 21):

I normally start my graduate class in artificial intelligence, or A.I., with a quote from a National Aeronautics and Space Administration report supporting manned space exploration: “Man is the lowest cost, 150-pound, nonlinear, all-purpose computer system that can be mass produced by unskilled labor.”

I use this to emphasize that we should study A.I. technology and its potential benefits without complicating it with philosophical issues (“Can machines think?”), a nonproductive exercise. Instead, we must remain alert to the consequences of our designs.

Bronx, March 23, 1998

The writer is a professor of electrical engineering at Manhattan College.

Insulting the Narcissist

To the Editor:

Astro Teller (Op-Ed, March 21) gives a brief history of insults to our collective narcissism. We thought we were the center of the universe, but Copernicus deprived us of that. Then Darwin came along and showed that we were descended from the lower animals. Then Mr. Teller jumps to artificial intelligence as a way of learning more about the mind of man.

But Mr. Teller leaves out the great historical Freudian insult to our narcissism, our belief that we are the masters of our own fate and that we are rational animals.

Our conscious mind is but the tip of the iceberg, and civilization is merely a thin veneer.

Grosse Pointe, Mich., March 21, 1998

The writer is an associate professor of psychiatry at Wayne State University.

Ask the Computer

To the Editor:

Re “Smart Machines, and Why We Fear Them” (Op-Ed, March 21): Perhaps the way to get a definitive answer to the question of whether computers can “perceive, reason, learn and act” as well as or better than human beings is to ask a computer to answer the question. One would have to check for possible subjective bias on the part of the machine, of course.

Whitewater, Wis., March 21, 1998

To the Editor:

Astro Teller’s explanation of why people fear artificial intelligence (OP-Ed, March 21) misses an obvious solution: just stop calling it intelligence, because it isn’t.

Intelligence is a characteristic of living beings. If a computer in 1760 could have been programmed to write music based on the work of Bach and Haydn, would it ever have composed a Stravinsky ballet or a Sibelius symphony? If a computer in 1520 had been programmed to paint pictures, starting with the work of Raphael, would it ever have created paintings like those of Picasso or Pollack?

Computer scientists and engineers have given us wonderful aids to our research and problem solving that sometimes outdo humans, but they aren’t intelligent; they’re just impressive robots.

New York, March 22, 1998

To the Editor:

Robert J. White reassures us (letter, March 26) that artificial human minds will never be made because “artificial intelligence investigation is based on advanced solid-state physics, whereas the humble human brain is a viable, semiliquid system!” That is no more reassuring than the suggestion that automobiles could never replace horses because they are made of metal, while the humble horse is is a viable, organic system with legs of flesh and bone.

Newark, March 26, 1998

The writer is an associate professor of philosophy at Rutgers University.