But so far he has not fully converted me. I still see these things as inanimate tools. On our call I tried to briefly counter Hofstadter by arguing that the bots are not really thinking; they’re just piggybacking on human thought. Starting as babies, we humans begin to build models of the world, and those models are informed by hard experiences and joyful experiences, emotional loss and delight, moral triumphs and moral failures — the mess of human life. A lot of the ensuing wisdom is stored deep in the unconscious recesses of our minds, but some of it is turned into language.

A.I. is capable of synthesizing these linguistic expressions, which humans have put on the internet and, thus, into its training base. But, I’d still argue, the machine is not having anything like a human learning experience. It’s playing on the surface with language, but the emotion-drenched process of learning from actual experience and the hard-earned accumulation of what we call wisdom are absent.

In a piece for The New Yorker, the computer scientist Jaron Lanier argued that A.I. is best thought of as “an innovative form of social collaboration.” It mashes up the linguistic expressions of human minds in ways that are structured enough to be useful, but it is not, Lanier argues, “the invention of a new mind.”

I think I still believe this limitationist view. But I confess I believe it a lot less fervently than I did last week. Hofstadter is essentially asking, If A.I. cogently solves intellectual problems, then who are you to say it’s not thinking? Maybe it’s more than just a mash-up of human expressions. Maybe it’s synthesizing human thought in ways that are genuinely creative, that are genuinely producing new categories and new thoughts. Perhaps the kind of thinking that a disembodied machine that mostly encounters the world through language is radically different than the kind of thinking done by an embodied human mind, contained in a person who moves about in the actual world, but it is an intelligence of some kind, operating in some ways vastly faster and superior to our own. Besides, Hofstadter points out, these artificial brains are not constrained by the factors that limit human brains — like having to fit inside a skull. And, he emphasizes, they are improving at an astounding rate, while human intelligence isn’t.

It’s hard to dismiss that argument.

I don’t know about you, but this is what life has been like for me since ChatGPT 3 was released. I find myself surrounded by radical uncertainty — uncertainty not only about where humanity is going but about what being human is. As soon as I begin to think I’m beginning to understand what’s happening, something surprising happens — the machines perform a new task, an authority figure changes his or her mind.


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