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Hans Moravec – 2

A peg went up to the top of the box to a man made of blocks. There was a body and a head, with arms and legs that swung, and as you turned the crank the man danced. The vivid impression was that we had something that was alive, or almost alive, made up of totally inanimate parts. (laughter) And I have been pursuing that ever since.

David: What was your inspiration for writing Robot and Mind Children?

Hans: That related back to thinking that I had done in high school. I was arguing with a friend who liked to take contrary positions, just to get things livened up. After we’d been talking about robots for quite a long time, he suddenly said, “Well, I don’t think a robot can think. It’s just mechanical parts, and it behaves mechanically.” A good arguing position, one that many people take all the time. I thought real hard how to counter this, and came up with an idea. You could start with a human being, and replace the parts of the human being one-by-one with functionally equivalent parts, but strictly artificial parts.

I think at the time I said, you could replace neurons with transistor circuits. And if the parts were truly functionally equivalent, what you ended up with, after replacing the entire human being bit by bit that way, would be a thing that still behaved like a human being, and had whatever properties the original human being had–at least in terms of interaction, and presumably the thought behind the interaction. There’s no point at which that should have gone away. So then I said, well, do that again, but this time don’t start with the human being. Just put the parts together in that same exact order, from the ground up, and then you have strictly a robot. So in the first place you have a human being that just has a lot of prosthetics, and in the second case you have a robot built from scratch, but with the same properties. So it was kind of an argument, just to to counter that position. But I thought about that scenario, and many other robot scenarios.

When I got to Stanford in the early Seventies, I actually came in on the tail end of a discussion that had been going on there. The discussion was based on a newsletter that a few people had received, which talked about the possibility of replacing the brain parts of a person with mechanical equivalents, so that you could get around a lot of the mortality of the biology. That revived my thinking about this for me. Pretty shortly thereafter I started writing some essays, only not just about replacing brain parts with their mechanical equivalent–that was only icing.

I had to write an essay for a qualifying exam. At the time I already started some arguments with my advisor and other people–but especially with my advisor. His position was that the amount of computation we already had (those computers could do about a million instructions a second) was more than adequate to get full human intelligence, if only we had clever enough programs. This is maybe a reasonable position for somebody who was worried about the reasoning part of intelligence, because over the previous decade some pretty successful programs had been written that could solve algebra and calculus problems, do integrations, and prove theorems in pure logic or geometry. They could do intelligence test problems, could play games pretty well–not super well in most cases, but just about as well as college freshmen. And it looked like a number of techniques had been found that greatly speeded up such programs.

For instance, in game playing there was this thing called the Alpha-Beta procedure, which pruned down the game tree to approximately its square root. There was a lot of hope that there would be more tricks like this that could still be found, if we were just clever enough or worked hard enough at it. But I’ve been doing robotics, in particular computer vision for a robot, and my advisor didn’t work at all in that area. I had trouble with the idea that one million calculations a second would be enough for human level intelligence. Just processing a picture you start out with a picture that consists of basically a million numbers describing the grey levels in the scene.

And to do the simplest thing with that picture, for instance, to find a contrasting area in it, you had to scan the entire picture. Since there are a million numbers you have to do quite a few million calculations, to do anything resembling human vision. Actually you have to do much much more than that. So you’re talking about millions of calculations just to process a mire glimpse of the world. But with a million-instruction-per-second computer that takes many seconds or minutes, or in fact in a lot of our programs. It was taking hours to process a single picture, but human vision works at the rate of about ten frames a second, that’s about the rate at which you can follow motion. There must be vastly more computation going on inside a person than this one-million-instruction-per-second thing.

So I marshaled together more arguments in that line, and wrote an essay that initially was titled “The Role of Raw Power in Intelligence”, arguing that we needed about a million times as much computation as we had to do what the nervous system did. Probably a lot of the thinking we did involved visual processing. I’m a visual thinker myself, so this was a natural for me. This doesn’t involve just chasing down logical inferences, but involves visualizing the problem. A lot of the power in our thinking comes from mentally mapping problems into things like visual or perceptual metaphors.

I think Einstein actually felt he sometimes wrestled with his formulas. This means the formulas had mental arms and back (laughter). If that processing in our heads is equivalent of about a million times as much computation as we had, that probably would be at least a partial explanation for why some things in artificial intelligence were proving so intractable. We were just vastly underpowered. I wrote this essay and then I extended it with some more scenarios, including the prospect of downloading, converting, or basically transferring a human consciousness into a machine. This was just one of many scenarios, some of which started with a human being and some of which didn’t. I got some response to that, by handing it out, and publishing it in the science fiction magazine Analog in the late Seventies.

In the Eighties I was writing more derivations and expansions of these ideas–in essays and articles for a few chapters in books, and things like that. But I was feeling unsatisfied that the totality of the ideas wasn’t really being expressed properly in these short pieces. So in the early Eighties I decided I really need to write a book. I guess in the Seventies I’d already decided to do it, but hadn’t really got started. Another spur to this was that in the Seventies I had read lots of books. One of them was Carl Sagan’s Dragons of Eden, which was a bestseller. There were a lot of things about it that I liked, but also a lot of things I thought were too shortsighted or too conservative, such as paths that he should have extended and didn’t. Or positions that he took that I thought were just not courageous, about the nature of intelligence beyond human intelligence.

David: Or just not that imaginative.

Hans: Yes, right. Robots, of course, were not primarily on his mind. He was thinking of extraterrestrial intelligence, but also assuming that it would be biological, which annoyed me (laughter). So I wanted to make a case for these other ideas. In 1985 I decided that if I didn’t get started soon this would just go on. I would just keep on wishing I would have done this forever. So I started assembling all the essays I had already written, and organizing a book a little bit without having a publisher or anything. Then, coincidentally that year, a letter arrived from an editor at Harvard University Press inviting me to write a book, based on some of the essays he’s seen in various places. So I wrote him back saying your timing’s excellent. Then I started writing and seriously working on the Mind Children book.

David: One of the things that fascinated me about your books was the philosophical speculation about consciousness. Do you think that we will ever have a true scientific measurement of

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