Pictured above is an abacus. As it looks, it is in the configuration for the number 68,170,000. It has other configurations which represent other numbers. This particular abacus is small, but bigger ones can and have been built for the purpose of representing larger numbers.
This abacus is made of wood and not silicon and other metalloids, metals, and plastics. Yet it is a computer for all that. A simple operation—a program, if you will—carried out by manipulating the beads can add two numbers. Another can multiply. The motive force for shifting the beads is muscle and not electricity, though we could certainly, and with not much effort, make an electric abacus (I imagine it’s already been done).
All of us will agree that this abacus does not know it is representing the number X (for any X). The abacus has not learned how to represent anything. It is just a pile of wood into which we project meaning. It is we who say this arrangement of wood means X, and that another means Y. This cannot be controversial.
The “software” for bead manipulation is also not part of the abacus, but making it so that it is is only a small engineering matter. There is nothing stopping us from making levers that move beads, as above with the electric abacus, but which still uses muscle power. So that we can have one lever for “Add 2”, or whatever. Electric gear-and-lever adding machines did just that (my dad had one).
And we could also expand our abacus. All we have to do is to say that certain numbers, which are only configurations of beads, represent certain Latin letters (use which alphabet you prefer). Of course, these letters are not in our expanded abacus. They are still in our intellects. The abacus remains just a pile of wood that happens to be a certain way.
Well, since we can extend the numbers to mean letters, we can also have the bead positions represent images, too. We could even have the abacus look like an image using colored beads. Just step back and squint a bit to see what image is there! Again, and as is obvious, the image isn’t in the abacus. It’s in our minds. We piece it together using the visual stimuli presented by the abacus, which, again, is just a pile of wood.
Continue on in this fashion, adding to the abacus so that it can, eventually, do “floating-point” calculations, which is to say, approximations to real numbers (“real” as in unobservable infinitely precise numerical entities that live on the continuum). We’re tired of hearing it, but those approximations are not in the abacus. They’re in our minds. Why? Because—can you guess?—the abacus is just a pile of wood.
A huge pile at that. It’s going to take a goodly number of beads to divide 3 into 1 and derive a reasonable finite approximation. But this is a thought experiment, so size is no limitation.
So here is the big question. At what point does the abacus become self aware, in the sense that it knows X as X? Here is a second related but dissimilar question: How many beads and sticks on which the beads slide are needed until the abacus becomes an adequate representation of a human brain? Well, that can be calculated. Doubtless we would deplete the local lumber yard, and, given its size, we might need to begin construction of our beast at some Lagrangian point. But never mind that: answer the first question.
It’s obvious. Never.
No matter what, our wooden brain simulation would still be nothing but a giant pile of wood. It would never become self aware in the sense of having an intellect that recognizes universals, such as numbers. To say that it would, to claim, that is, that intellect “emerges” when some crucial point is reached is to invoke magic. It is to say a pile of wood to which one more bead is added becomes imbued with intellect and will. But that without that bead, it is just a pile of sticks.
And that that thing that makes this happen is magic. Has to be magic. It can’t be physics, which hasn’t changed from before the crucial bead is added. Physics had to give the pile something more than it had with one additional bead.
Well, what if we moved the beads on the sticks faster? We asked questions like this before. Then, as long as we have taken care not to start a fire (no problem if we’re in space), the speed of bead movement is as nothing. Speed of calculation does not account for self awareness and intellect.
As we agreed originally, instead of wood, we can construct this abacus out of metalloids, metal, and plastic, and we can use electricity to move its internal states around. And we can do this fast, too. And we have: you’re reading this on the result.
But just like with the wood, at not point of size can this pile of silicon, metal and plastic ever develop an intellect. As before, magic has to be invoked to say that addition of one more logic gate turns the pile from a pile into a life which has an intellect and will.
Let’s face it. Strong AI, as it’s called, is an impossibility. More to come…