Granville Sewell on conscious typewriters

by Neil Rickert

In a recent post at ENV, Granville Sewell suggests that if computers could be conscious, then why not typewriters:

Sewell is, of course, attempting to ridicule the idea of a conscious computer.  But I don’t think his ridicule succeeds.

Those in the AI community who perhaps hope to produce a conscious computer, would have ready answers to Sewell’s argument.  They would see a typewriter as far too simple a device for there to be any possibility of consciousness.

Consciousness and AI

Sewell’s argument against conscious computers similarly misfires.  He seems to be arguing that any conscious computer would have to be something like the Eliza program, based on using preprogrammed canned responses.  However, most people in the AI community would readily grant that Eliza is not conscious and not even intelligent.

Generally speaking, AI researchers are looking for other ways, such as machine learning, that would demonstrate computational intelligence.  So they are looking for behavior that is very different from the kind of Eliza response system that Sewell criticizes.

I’ll note here that I share Sewell’s skepticism as to the possibilities of AI, but I do not think the kind of argument that Sewell uses has much persuasive power.

Consciousness and ID

Sewell is a proponent of ID (Intelligent Design theory), and is arguing against evolution.  The biggest problem with Sewell’s argument is that the computer and the typewriter are intelligently designed.  So, if anything, his argument against the possibility of a conscious computer should be seen as a limitation of design.  That is to say, if his argument demonstrates anything at all, then it ought to pose a serious problem for the proponents of ID.

Sewell does have what he thinks is a response to that argument.  He writes:

And if you don’t believe that intelligent engineers could ever cause machines to attain consciousness, how can you believe that random mutations could accomplish this?

Here, he reveals his failure to understand evolution.  He apparently thinks that evolution as about random bits of matter, with a selection procedure to pick the best.  But this misunderstands biological evolution.  Biology, itself, is very creative.  Think of all of those organisms, each reproducing and providing new organisms, with each organism having some independence from its parents.  This is already creative.  The “random mutations” in evolution are all about varying this already existent creativity, to find new and better creative ways of dealing with the environment.  There is a lot more to it than mere randomness.

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