Can computers think? What is thinking, exactly, and how does one recognize it? What is the correlation, if any, between thinking and consciousness? Could a computer be conscious? For years, science fiction writers have used these questions as material for their stories, from domestic robots who do all the housework to automated spaceships colonizing and mining the galaxy in the name of industry. Meanwhile, the scientific community has been slowly but steadily moving towards the point where the answers to these questions become visible. Predictions for the future in the field of artificial intelligence have traditionally been overly optimistic, but as computers become increasingly adept at simulating reason, the coming century will inevitably bring with it new ideas about what it means to be human.
The practice of ruminating on the nature of thought and consciousness is nearly as old as the human race itself. Discussions of free will and fate can be found in nearly every religion and philosophy on the face of the earth -- are humans in control of their actions, or is the universe merely an exceedingly complex machine, all of whose actions are pre-determined? Recently, the development of quantum theory has suggested what to many seems the worst alternative -- that the universe is deterministically random, and nothing can be either controlled or predicted. While this line of reasoning brings to mind such glib responses as asking why criminals such be punished, if they have no control over their actions (the answer, of course, is that judges can't control their own actions either), it also leads to a deeper understanding of the issues involved in automated reasoning and the possibilities therein. No easy defini...
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