Is It Real Life? Is Intelligence Real?
April 17, 2010 5 Comments
Some people would object to the attempt, in both AI and Alife, to ignore the differences between the natural and the artificial, or between physically embodied systems and systems simulated entirely in software.
They would claim that the attempt to find common general principles linking the natural and the artificial is misguided, because the artificially produced or evolved will not be the REAL thing, or perhaps the software-only versions will not be the REAL thing. It won’t be REAL life, REAL intelligence, REAL perception, REAL planning, REAL consciousness. Likewise, some claim that a system inhabiting only a virtual machine environment implemented in software cannot be an example of REAL life, REAL intelligence, REAL perception, REAL consciousness, etc.
The problem with this sort of objection is that it is based on dichotomous thinking. The assumption is that we have concepts like “alive”, “conscious” “intelligent” which divide things up into two classes, those which the concept applies to and those which it doesn’t apply to. So the assumption is that everything either is alive or it isn’t.
This is obviously silly with concepts like “house”. A house is something that has a collection of features that make it a useful enclosure for its occupants. But there’s no well defined subset of those features that form a minimal requirement for something to be a house, so that everything that has those features is a house, and everything else isn’t. Rather, “house” is a cluster concept. It corresponds to a cluster of features which in various combinations can make something a house, but with no well defined boundary between the cases that are houses and those that are not, even if there are clear examples of both.
Maybe under some conditions you’d regard a rectangular sheet of metal supported by four poles as a house, maybe not. Maybe under some conditions you would call Buckingham palace a house, maybe not. But arguing about over whether something is a REAL house if it doesn’t have any walls, or any doors, or if it is as big and complex as a palace, is just silly.
The important thing is not to draw boundaries, but to understand that there is a large variety of cases with different combinations of features. We can study the implications of the presence or absence of various features, without worrying whether they make something a REAL house or not. We could, if we wish, give them different names, coined for the purpose of making new distinctions that we have found useful, e.g. “wallfree-house”, “palatial-house”, etc.
The same goes for concepts like “alive”, “conscious”, etc. These are also cluster concepts, which refer in a partially mindeterminate way to collections of features which can be present or absent in different combinations.
Some subsets (e.g. the features found in a chicken, or a giraffe) definitely make something alive and other subsets (e.g. the features of a rock) definitely don’t. But there are many combinations which we have never previously encountered, and therefore our language has not needed to take decisions about whether they do or do not suffice for being
Some of those combinations are found in artificial systems. In particular, over many years AI researchers have been examining ways of implementing artificial systems with combinations of various kinds of abilities, including visual perception, auditory perception, tactile perception, motor control, learning, planning, remembering, discovering new concepts, solving mathematical problems, painting pictures, composing poems and stories, communicating with other natural or artificial systems, acquiring new goals or interests, emotional capabilities, and many more.
Arguing over whether such systems, whether they are tangible robot like entities, or software agents in virtual reality environments, REALLY are alive or not, REALLY have mental states or not, is a complete waste of time, for there can be no answer.
But we can explore the implications of having different combinations of features and, for some combinations that recur often and are of interest, we can coin new unambiguous names: alive1, alive2, alive3, conscious1, conscious2, conscious3, etc., just as, when we discovered that a chemical element such as carbon could have two isotopes we did not need to waste time arguing over which is REALLY carbon. Instead we call one carbon12 and the other carbon14 (or whatever), and then study their similarities and differences.
So instead of arguing over whether the entities studied in Alife, or in AI, are alive or conscious or intelligent, or worrying about where to draw the boundaries between those which REALLY are and those which are not, we can simply note that different more refined versions of our old indefinite concepts can be defined, with different boundaries.
Then we can explore the implications of each case, e.g. which regions of niche space it can fit, what the implications of its design are. And we can go on to explore more global processes in which such systems interact with one another and either individuallym or in groups, or across many generations, follow intricate trajectories in design space and niche space.
This replaces fruitless philosophical (or theological) debates with productive investigation. Let’s get on with the job. There’s lots to do.