Are People Machines?

Are people machines?

“Everyone knows that machines can behave only in lifeless, mechanical ways.”

This objection seems reasonable. A person ought to feel offended at being likened to any trivial machine. But it seems to me that the word “machine” is getting to be out of date.

We ought to recognize that we’re still in an early era of machines, with virtually no idea of what they may become. What if some visitor from outer space had come a billion years ago to judge the fate of earthly life from watching clumps of cells that hadn’t even learned to crawl?

Our first intuitions about computers came from experiences with machines of the 1940s, which contained only thousands of parts. But a human brain contains billions of cells, each one complicated by itself and connected to many thousands of others.

Present-day computers represent an intermediate degree of complexity. And yet, we continue to use old words as though there had been no change at all. We need to adapt our attitudes to phenomena that work on scales never before conceived. Does the term “machine” take us far enough?

Rhetoric won’t settle anything. In trying to understand what the vast mechanisms of the human brain may do, we can find self-respect in knowing what wonderful machines we are (and what a FAIR, internetworked “electronic brain” could be).

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