What Darwin's theory of evolution reveals about artificial intelligence

March 24, 2013

What Darwin and Turing had both discovered, in their different ways, was the existence of competence without comprehension. This inverted the deeply plausible assumption that comprehension is in fact the source of all advanced competence. […]

Why indulge in this “sorta [understands]” talk? Because when we analyze – or synthesize – this stack of ever more competent levels, we need to keep track of two facts about each level: what it is and what it does. What it is can be described in terms of the structural organization of the parts from which it is made – so long as we can assume that the parts function as they are supposed to function. What it does is some (cognitive) function that it (sorta) performs – well enough so that at the next level up, we can make the assumption that we have in our inventory a smarter building block that performs just that function – sorta, good enough to use.

This is the key to breaking the back of the mind-bogglingly complex question of how a mind could ever be composed of material mechanisms. What we might call the sorta operator is, in cognitive science, the parallel of Darwin’s gradualism in evolutionary processes. Before there were bacteria there were sorta bacteria, and before there were mammals there were sorta mammals and before there were dogs there were sorta dogs, and so forth. We need Darwin’s gradualism to explain the huge difference between an ape and an apple, and we need Turing’s gradualism to explain the huge difference between a humanoid robot and hand calculator.

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