There is another perspective here that we may want to discuss, and that is if the dichotomy we are examining is maybe a false, or at least, less interesting one. What if we find that both man and machine can belong to a broader class of things that we may want to call “alive”? Rather than ask if something is nature or technology we may want to just ask if it lives.
The question of what life is and when it began is of course not an easy one, but if we work with simple definitions we may want to agree that something lives if it has a metabolism and the ability to reproduce. That, then, could cover both machines and humans. Humans – obviously – machines less obviously, but still solidly.
When we discuss artificial intelligence, our focus is on the question of if something can be said to have human-level intelligence. But what if we were to argue that nothing can be human-kind intelligent without also being alive? Without suffering under the same limitations and evolutionary pressures as we do?
Does this seem an arbitrary limitation? Perhaps, but it is no less arbitrary than the idea that intelligence is exhibited only through problem solving methods such as playing chess or go.
Can something be, I would ask, intelligent and not alive? In this simple question there is something fundamental captured. And if we say yes – then would it not seem awkward to imagine a robot to be intelligent but essentially dead?
This conceptual scheme – life / intelligence – is one that is being afforded far too little attention. Max Tegmark’s brilliant book on Life 3.0 is of course an exception, but even here it is just assumed that life is life even if it transcends the limitations (material and psychological) of life as we know it. Life is thought to be immanent in intelligence, and the rise of artificial intelligence is equated with the emergence of a new form of life.
But that is not a necessary relationship at all. One does not imply the other. And to make it more difficult, we could also examine the notoriously unclear concept of “consciousness” as a part of the exploration.
Can something be intelligent, dead and conscious? Can something be conscious and not live? Intelligent, but not conscious? The challenge that we face when we analyze our distinction between man and machine in this framework is that we are forced to think about the connection between life and intelligence in a new way, I think.
Man is alive, conscious and intelligent. Can a machine be all three and still be a machine?
We are scratching the surface here of a problem that Wittgenstein formulated much more clearly; in the second part of philosophical investigations he asks if we can see a man as a machine, an automaton. It is a question with some pedigree in philosophy since Descartes asked the same when we tried out his systematic doubt — looking out through his window he asked if he could doubt that the shapes he saw were fellow humans and his answer was that indeed, they could be automatons wearing clothes, mechanical men and nothing else.
Wittgenstein notes that this is a strange concept, and that we must agree that we would not call a machine thinking unless we adopted an attitude towards this machine that is essentially an attitude as if towards a soul. Thinking is not a disembodied concept. It is something we say of human beings, and a machine that could think would need to be very much like a man, so much so that we would have an attitude like that towards a soul, perhaps. Here is his observation (Philosophical Investigations part II: iv):
“Suppose I say if a friend: ‘He is not an automaton’. — What information is conveyed by this, and to whom would it be information? To a human being who meets him in ordinary circumstances? What information could it give him? (At the very most that this man always behaves like a human being and not occasionally like a machine.)
‘I believe that he is not an automaton’, just like that, so far makes no sense.
My attitude towards him is an attitude towards a soul. I am not of the opinion that he has a soul.” (My bold).
The German makes the point even clearer, I think: “Meine Einstellung zu ihm ist eine Einstellung zur Seele. Ich habe nicht die Meinung dass er eine Seele hat.” So for completeness we add this to our conceptual scheme: intelligence / life / consciousness / soul – and ask when a machine becomes a man?
As we widen our conceptual net, the questions around artificial intelligence become more interesting. And what Wittgenstein also adds is that for the more complex language game, there are no proper tests. At some point our attitudes change.
Now, the risk here, as Dennett points out, is that this shift comes too fast.