The Continuing Conundrum of Human Uniqueness - Evolution News & Views

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The Continuing Conundrum of Human Uniqueness

In an excellent op-ed, Tom Bethell in the Washington Times quotes Charles Krauthammer's priceless opinion that the silence from outer space, the deafening absence of any answer to our querying search for evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI), is "maddening," it "makes no sense." How could it be?

If human beings are not unique but rather are on a continuum with animals, and if neither animals nor humans are otherwise anything special, having instead been randomly cast forth from the elemental chaos, there should be scads of intelligent life forms just in our immediate cosmic neighborhood. The Drake Equation, as massaged by Carl Sagan, predicted "a million advanced civilizations in our own galaxy" alone. So far, none of it is remotely in evidence.

Meanwhile on our planet, we are told over and over again that human intelligence is nothing special and any moment now an ape will learn to speak, as tiny human children have no problem doing. Again, so far nothing.

A similar assurance of our lack of uniqueness points to computers which, again, any moment now are expected to wake up and give evidence of consciousness and purposeful agency. Yet that moment, too, continues to recede further and further into the unknowable future:

The leading champion of AI today is probably Ray Kurzweil. He correctly foresaw that computer programs would defeat chess champions. But the chess problem can be digitized. The best next move can be calculated by a computer.

Computers facing real-world problems face unanticipated difficulties -- the "frame problem." Programmers must attend only to what is relevant to a task, ignore what is irrelevant and spell out instructions in minute detail. This can create problems of infinite regress. Small children never see them as problematical to begin with. Meanwhile the programming of common sense into computers seems to have bogged down. By 2009, OpenCyc 2.0 had a knowledge base of 47,000 concepts and 306,000 facts. But there are never enough. The human mind routinely does something incalculable.

Mr. Kurzweil predicted in The Age of Spiritual Machines (1999) that computers would claim to be conscious by 2029. But with each passing year, that seems less and less probable.

On the topic of computers playing chess, Bethell has cited linguist Noam Chomsky's droll explanation of why he remains unimpressed:
What's going on with the chess is about as interesting as the fact that a front end loader can lift more than an Olympic champion -- weight lifter or something. You know, these are just not interesting questions.
Bethell concludes:
Human dethronement still eludes the Darwinians, whose search has stalled. Perhaps that is because our possession of the faculty of reason really is unique.

Read the rest here.


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