Publication 4119

Winograd T. (1991) Thinking machines. Can there be? Are we. In: Sheehan J. J. & Sosna M. (eds.) The boundaries of humanity: Humans, animals, machines. University of California Press, Berkeley CA: 198–224. Fulltext at
Futurologists have proclaimed the birth of a new species, Machina sapiens, that will share (perhaps usurp) our place as the intelligent sovereigns of our earthly domain. These “thinking machines” will take over our burdensome mental chores, just as their mechanical predecessors were intended to eliminate physical drudgery. Eventually, they will apply their “ultra-intelligence” to solving all of our problems. Any thoughts of resisting this inevitable evolution is just a form of ‘‘speciesism,” born from a romantic and irrational attachment to the peculiarities of the human organism. Critics have argued with equal fervor that “thinking machine” is an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms. Computers, with their foundations of cold logic, can never be creative or insightful or possess real judgments. No matter how competent they appear, they do not have the genuine intentionality that is at the heart of human understanding. The vain pretensions of those who seek to understand mind as computation can be dismissed as yet another demonstration of the arrogance of modern science. Although my own understanding developed through active participation in artificial intelligence research, I have now come to recognize a larger grain of truth in the criticisms than in the enthusiastic predictions. But the story is more complex. The issues need not (perhaps cannot) be debated as fundamental questions concerning the place of humanity in the universe. Indeed, artificial intelligence has not achieved creativity, insight, and judgment. But its shortcomings are far more mundane: we have not yet been able to construct a machine with even a modicum of common sense or one that can converse on everyday topics in ordinary language. Page 199 The source of the difficulties will not be found in the details of silicon microcircuits or of Boolean logic. The basic philosophy that has guided the research is shallow and inadequate and has not received sufficient scrutiny. It is drawn from the traditions of rationalism and logical empiricism but has taken a novel turn away from its predecessors. This new “patchwork rationalism” will be our subject of examination. First, we will review the guiding principles of artificial intelligence and see how they are embodied in current research. Then we will look at the fruits of that research. I will argue that “artificial intelligence” as now conceived is limited to a very particular kind of intelligence: one that can usefully be likened to bureaucracy in its rigidity, obtuseness, and inability to adapt to changing circumstances. The weakness comes not from insufficient development of the technology but from the inadequacy of the basic tenets. But, as with bureaucracy, weaknesses go hand in hand with unique strengths. Through a reinterpretation and reformulation of the techniques that have been developed, we can anticipate and design appropriate and valuable uses. In conclusion, I will briefly introduce an orientation I call “hermeneutic constructivism” and illustrate how it can lead down this alternative path of design.

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