Wednesday, 21 May 2008

The anti-progressive sceptic

It is a sad and oft-times tediously annoying fact that the word "sceptic" has many differing connotations. I've mentioned this before, but it's something I continue to come back to mentally so I thought I'd subject you all to it as well. Phil Plait, the Bad Astronomer, recently defined "skeptic" simply as "someone who insists on seeing the evidence" - I'm probably paraphrasing but that was the jist of it.

And here's the etymology. The Greek word "skepsis" has an ambiguous meaning also - which has somehow either found its way through to the present day, or is simply coincidentally re-asserting itself now. It could mean "doubt" or "inquiry"; I would say that Phil's definition falls under the latter of those, and sadly the general definition in the public mentality falls under the former.

This is certainly not helped by those who term themselves sceptics in relation to a particular controversy, such as climate change sceptics, moon landing sceptics, or AI sceptics. Unsurprisingly for those who know me, it's the latter on whom I wish to focus today - though much of what I say can be generalised. Use your discretion in this regard.

I don't know if John Searle has ever been explicitly termed an AI-sceptic, but he certainly is one. I'm currently writing an essay on his arguments against the Turing Test, and while they're very intelligent, eloquent and influential, one can't help but get the impression that he is simply against the idea of an intelligent machine or computer program from a very ideological perspective.

It has been suggested that Searle's objections to the possibility of machine intelligence will one day simply be made obsolete by the progress made in the scientific and technological fields; that he and his supporters will have to give up their position when faced with the overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Eventually, proponents of AI claim, there will be a program which is capable of passing the unrestricted Turing Test. I find this a hard assertion to disagree with, as it's a little like denying that there could be intelligent life somewhere in the galaxy - it makes no sense to rule it out simply on the grounds of what we can observe today.

However, I don't think that any evidence will persuade "Searleans" away from their anti-AI prejudice, and Searle's Chinese Room Argument gives them the perfect excuse. It is based on a program that is capable of passing the unrestricted Turing Test, and as such, means that even if a machine did everything it could to fool you into thinking it was a human, the "AI-sceptics" are still able to deny that it thinks for itself, or understands in any way what it's saying and doing. The only reply one can give to this is to say that there is exactly the same amount of empirical evidence for the program's understanding as there is for a human's understanding.

This is the fundamental difference between sceptical doubt and sceptical inquiry - the former can lead to dogmatism and an arrogant refusal to face evidence and adapt one's ideas to suit. The latter is true open-mindedness, in the most beneficial sense. But I'll admit bias in that regard.

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