Professor Margaret Boden 
Not Gizmos, but Ghosts: AI & the Mind

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Cambridge Muslim college; training the next generation of Muslim thinkers.

MARGARET: Most of what I'm going to be saying relates, I think, very closely to the issues that Mark Harris was talking about; and I suppose for this topic, we come from the point which all of us know. Which is that there's a huge amount of excitement about AI at the moment; you can't turn on the television, you can't open a newspaper - turn on YouTube, whatever - without finding some remark about AI; usually very excited, very often full of hype. So there's a lot of excitement about AI at the moment, and why is that?

Well, to put it very, very briefly, I think the reason is that over the past five ten years, we've come to a stage now where there are increasing numbers of interesting, intriguing, useful - and for certain people, highly lucrative - AI gizmos. We're surrounded by them, and that's what all the hype - well, much of what all the hype is about - in the newspapers, and the wider businessman are getting excited and so on. Now, I think that the most exciting thing about AI - and particularly in this context - is not the gizmos. It's what I call the ghost; in other words, it's the mind, or rather AI's view of the mind, how AI helps us to think about the mind. That is what I think; that's what I've always thought is most interesting about AI, and of course the reason I've used the word 'ghost', you'll think of Gilbert Ryle's talk about the 'Ghost in the Machine.'

Now of course, when Ryle talked about the ghost in the machine, he meant to be criticising a particular view of the mind which did see it as some sort of supernatural, utterly mysterious, completely beyond science/substance stuff - thing, phenomenon, whatever word you want to use - which certainly wasn't the same thing as the brain. And indeed, it's relationship with the brain was very, very unclear. I don't just mean he didn't understand the details; that there could be any sort of relationship between that view of the mind - the Cartesian view, if you like - and the brain, was fundamentally mysterious from the metaphysical point of view. Gilbert Ryle had no patience with that, so his talk about the mind being the Ghost in the Machine was intended to be a very uncomplimentary interpretation of the notion of a ghost; and when I say that what's exciting and relevant for our purposes about AI is its view of the ghost, I'm not using that in an uncomplimentary way as we'll see later.

I think you can say that AI sees the mind, if you like, as a ghost in this sense; that it doesn't see the mind as a physical mechanism. It doesn't see the mind as the brain; it doesn't actually say... well, some do, but I think properly interpreted - and Ron (NAME) may be talking about this bit tomorrow - I think that properly interpreted, it doesn't say what Dennis says and Mark Harris actually quoted. I think it was Mark - or perhaps it was the sheikh who gave the first talk - quoted Dennis as saying our thoughts are "events in our brain, which are information processing events." Now actually, I think you don't have to say - and AI doesn't force you to say - that our thoughts are events in the brain; they are information processing phenomena, which are implemented the brain. Anyway, we'll come to that, don't worry about that.


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