The fallacy of thinking intelligence as software

During the  Enlightenment the human body was thought of as a kind of clock. That was because the dominant technology of the day was mechanical engineering.Christiaan Huygens invented the pendulum clock in the 1600s, and in the following decades and centuries, all across Europe, the miraculous ticking of interconnected gears and springs felt akin to the periodic and cyclical nature of the human biology, and indeed of the whole universe. God was thought of as an architect, or an engineer. Everything in the cosmos was placed in perfect relation to everything else; an idea referred in philosophy as “determinism”. The human brain was mechanical too, and excreted thoughts – as other machines exhaled gases or fumes or fluids – and was powered by a mystical “soul”. This metaphor mutated by the late 20th century, as western societies rejected religion and adopted a new form of technology: computers.

Computers seemed to do “smart” things, like manipulating numbers, which was something that only humans were able to do till then. Computers did so by codifying a calculating process into a “program” that could then be “executed” on a machine. The program was called “software” and the machine “hardware”. The “smart” part of computing lay in the software, because that’s where the knowledge of solving a problem resided. The hardware was important of course, and necessary, but one could imagine all kinds of hardware, not necessary built with silicon chips and electronics, but with billiard balls, light bulbs, paper clips, whatever. This curious juxtaposition between hardware and software led to the following conclusion: that we can engineer intelligent behaviour as long as we code the right programs (or “algorithms”); executing those algorithms was of secondary importance and independent of the physical substrate. As long as you had a smart algorithm you had intelligence, not unlike having a smart genie that you could then place inside any bottle, or lamp, you liked.

Thinking of intelligence as something independent of the physical substrate (the “hardware”) was an idea that originated in computing and nowadays dominates our everyday thinking. We are using the computing metaphor in our everyday speech, as if it was a given. Our brains are the “hardware”, and our minds the “software”. We are thinking of Artificial Intelligence as computers becoming more and more “intelligent” because of algorithms.

The computer metaphor has led people like Stephen Hawing and Max Tegmark suggest that the future of humanity is to transfer our intelligence and consciousness to computers; to “upload” our consciousness and free ourselves from the frailty and perishable nature of biological bodies; thus bequeathing the keys of biological, and cosmic, evolution to our computer descendants. This is the main thesis of Life 3.0, the new book by Max Tegmark, although the idea is not new and was also explored in the “Anthropic Principle” by John Barrow and Frank Tippler published in 1988.

But of course, such thinking is fallacious. That’s because these otherwise very smart people confuse the computer metaphor of software versus hardware as the real thing. Like people in the Enlightenment who thought of the human body as a clock powered by an immaterial soul, Tegmark et al are regarding the self as an immaterial algorithm trapped inside a biological prison. Such thinking is also irrational because it has not being substantiated by any scientific evidence. In fact, the contrary is true: neuroscience and neurobiology show that intelligence is inextricable from the physical aspects of the brain. “We” are not an algorithm. We are unitary biological creatures.

Confusing metaphor with reality would have been unremarkable if it was not for how it frames the current debate on Artificial Intelligence. When powerful, successful and highly intelligent people adopt the metaphor when speaking publicly about the future of AI they offer validation to a fallacy that could have serious consequences in the economy, society and politics.  Artificial Intelligence is not intelligence but an imitation of intelligence. It is imitation because it fools us into believing it is the real thing. This idea of “imitation” is fundamental in AI, and was put forward since the beginning from none other than Alan Turing. In his “Imitation Game” paper he suggests how a computer could fool us into believing it was a human.

Once we adopt the computer metaphor without thinking then we render ourselves incapable of distinguishing between reality and the imitation of reality. As a result we are talking about AI “ethics”, or AI “bias”, as if they were real. They are not. Machines cannot have ethics, or uphold values, or have opinions or preferences. These words only have meaning to creatures like us, with the ability of self-refection. It is because we can examine the content and meaning of our thinking that we can decide between right and wrong. Self-refection is a property of biology. Machines cannot have self-reflection, and that is what will forever differentiate them from us.


  1. Oraldo

    I agree with you George at all and besides, I enjoyed your book- IN OUR OWN IMAGE- but I have a concern: like a enlightentment era, how stop or get control of propagation of Androids that will are “like us”?

  2. George Zarkadakis

    Thanks for your comment Oraldo, and I m pleased to hear that you enjoyed my book! Re: androids, in Asia they are already developing them and I expect that in the next 5-10 years they will be almost indistinguishable from humans..

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