Will Computers Ever Be Able to Think on Their Own?

Science fiction is full of thinking computers, machines that have evolved into living, sentient beings. While the idea is entertaining, many consider the research and experiments upon which it is based to be unsettling at the least. Humans are alive; machines are not. Still, there are those who, like Ray Kurzweil, believe artificially intelligent, self-aware computers will exist by the year 2059. All that is needed is to pattern the human brain.

The Difference Between Brains and Computers

The human brain is a highly complex unit. It doubles and folds back upon itself to provide room for the neurons that process all the data that we absorb daily. According to “2Machines.com,” there are a million, million neurons in the adult human brain, each with a thousand connections. The neurons process data in a parallel method, making it possible to analyze and make decisions quickly. To replicate that complexity, computers would have to have 8 million Gigabytes of RAM. Humans are able to take in complex data like color, movement, sound and size and process them simultaneously to arrive at an identification or to make a response. The computer processes each area individually, assimilates the data to identify the subject, then must still rely on pre-programmed data to respond. At the current rate of technological advancement, computers should have eight million Gigabytes by 2029, so can we assume that they will be able to “think” at that point?

Thinking Involves Self Awareness.

A computer has a bank of knowledge. It knows things, but does it know that it knows? An article in “The Keyboard.com” compares the computer to a thermostat. The device senses, or takes in data, that tells it the heat in a room does not match the pre-programmed figure on its dial. It responds by analyzing the data and adjusting the heating or cooling to bring the room to the accepted level. It “knows” that the temperatures must be synced, but does it “know that it knows,” and does it know it is a thermostat? Humans rely on their instincts and upon past experience to decide upon a course of action. The Keyboard article gives the example of a simple mathematics problem: if we add two consecutive whole numbers and divide the answer by two, the result will never be a whole number. Humans, by experience, will know that is true. They remember and relate their experiences. The machine, however, will try every conceivable combination of numbers, to infinity, and never arrive at the answer because it is programmed to give the precise answer.

The 2059 Deadline

The next major hurdle to jump in making computers think is emotion. Kurzweil, who invented the text-to-speech synthesizer, believes that goal can be reached within a half a century. If brains function through transmission of electric impulses and data through the neurons, basically algorithms, then human emotions, intuition, empathy and even a sense of humor can be “taught” to a machine by emulating those algorithms. It is a matter of complexity. If that is true, then when we arrive at that level machines will become sentient.

The debate about whether or not machines can be taught to reason and feel is, at times, heated. Do we know enough about how the brain functions to emulate it? Opponents say no. Still, researchers attempting to develop thinking computers not likely to abandon their quests, and 2059 is “on the doorstep.”