by Nancy Weil

Ray Kurzweil and David Gelernter Debate Artificial Intelligence

Feb 01, 20072 mins
Enterprise Applications

Will machines ever be capable of human intelligence? That’s ultimately a matter for philosophers, not scientists, to decide, two of today’s top technology minds agreed during a recent debate at MIT.

Inventor Ray Kurzweil and Yale University Professor David Gelernter debated the question, “Are we limited to building superintelligent, robotic ’zombies,’ or will it be possible for us to build conscious, creative, even ’spiritual’ machines?” The debate celebrated the 70th anniversary of Alan Turing’s paper “On Computable Numbers,” widely held to be the theoretical foundation for the development of computers.

In a separate 1950 paper, Turing suggested a test to determine “machine intelligence.” In the Turing Test, a human judge has a conversation with another human and a machine, not knowing whether responses come from the human or the machine. If the judge cannot determine where the responses come from—the human or the machine—then the machine is said to “pass” the test and exhibit intelligence. The test itself is the source of ongoing dispute.

But Kurzweil and Gelernter were focused on how Turing’s test could be applied. Kurzweil’s position: Machines will, in fact, some day pass the Turing Test. Modeling of parts of the brain is already leading to the ability

to replicate certain human functions in a machine, he said.

“We’ll have systems that have the suppleness of the human brain,” Kurzweil said. But current software and computing power aren’t up to the task, so look out 20 or so years, he added.

Humans will recognize the intelligence of such machines because “the machines will be very clever and they’ll get mad at us if we don’t,” Kurzweil joked.

Gelernter smiled at that, but he also shook his head. His position: Logically, any machine that is programmed to mimic human feelings (an aspect of consciousness) is programmed to lie—because a machine cannot feel what a human feels.

Kurzweil noted that recently a computer simulated protein folding, something that was believed to be impossible for a machine. Gelernter noted the simulation of the folding stopped there.

“You can simulate a rainstorm and nobody gets wet,” he said.