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The Mind vs. the Machine


In 1792 Mary Wollstonecraft in her work A Vindication of
the Rights of Woman posed the question, "In what does man's
pre-eminence over the brute creation consist?" She answers,
"In reason and virtue by which mankind can attain a degree
of knowledge." Today, no one would argue that man and woman
are not intellectually equal, or that humans have a
superior intellectual capacity over the brute creation, but
what would they say about humankind versus the machine? We
have always felt ourselves superior to animals by our
ability to reason -- "to form conclusions, judgments, or
inferences from facts or premises"(Random House
Dictionary). Philosophers have argued for centuries about
what defines reason, now on the dawn of the 21st century
this age old question must be revisited. 

Since the ENIAC, the first mainframe, hummed to life in
1946, the chasm between humankind and machine has appeared
to dwindle. Computers have insinuated themselves into the
lives of millions of people, taking over the performance of
mundane and repetitive tasks. 

With the constant improvement of computer technology,
today's super-computers can outperform the combined brain
power of thousands of humans. These machines are so
powerful that they can store an essay sixteen billion times
longer than this one in active memory. With the development
of artificial intelligence software, computers can not only
perform tasks at remarkable speed, but can "learn" to
respond to situations based on various input. Can these
machines ever procure "reason and virtue," or are they
simply calculators on steroids? We have now reached the
point where we must redefine what constitutes reason in the
21st century. 

On the intellectual battlefield, in February 1996,
thirty-two chess pieces, represented the most recent
challenge to the belief that thought is exclusive to
humans. Kasparov, the world chess champion, faced off
against one of IBM's finest supercomputers, Deep Blue.
Chess, a game of logic and reason, would be a perfect test
of a computer's ability to "think." In the Information Age
battle of David vs. Goliath, the machine clearly had the
advantage. Deep Blue is capable of playing out 50- 100
billion positions in the three minutes allotted per turn.
Nonetheless, the silicon brain was no match for the cunning
intellect of the human mind. Deep Blue lacked the ability
to anticipate the moves that Kasparov would make. In
preparation for the game, Kasparov adapted a strategy of
play unique to the computer. He would not be aggressive. He
would not play for a psychological advantage. He would not
make moves where pure calculation would be dominant.
Kasparov, in fact, found Deep Blue's playing predictable.
He could learn the style of play of the computer. The
computer could not do the same of his. Deep Blue lacked
that intuitive edge which separates the victors from the
defeated. On the chess battlefield, man proved what
separates it from the "brute creation," or in this case the
silicon creation; the ability to reason and intuit. 

The question remains as to where to draw the line between
thought and calculation. Is thought the process by which
the answer is reached or the answer itself? Is the
intuition and creativity of humankind only a complex
algorithm yet to be bestowed on our silicon friends, or has
humankind a special gift that continues to separate us from
machines. some intangible spirit inside every one of us
which separates humankind from the brute creation of
electronic circuits... 


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