The Emperor's New Mind Essay - Critical Essays

Roger Penrose

The Emperor’s New Mind

Are human minds essentially “computers made of meat,” as Marvin Minsky has said? Can computers--now or in potential--be said to possess consciousness? Many researchers in the rapidly growing field of artificial intelligence (AI) would unhesitatingly answer yes to these questions. They are proponents of what has come to be known as “strong AI,” the belief that sooner or later (estimates vary widely, but two hundred years is generally the upper limit) computers will be able to do everything that the human brain is capable of doing--and much more besides.

Roger Penrose, a mathematical physicist whose influential work includes a fruitful collaboration with Stephen Hawking, has written THE EMPEROR’S NEW MIND to refute the principal contentions of strong AI. Penrose argues that some of the distinctive activities of the human mind are nonalgorithmic--that is, they cannot be reduced to “the carrying out of some well-defined sequence of operations"--and thus cannot be performed by digital computers.

THE EMPEROR’S NEW MIND is addressed to nonspecialists. Penrose is a clear, patient expositor, and throughout he employs an engaging conversational style (he is a little too fond of exclamation points). The text is frequently supported by excellent illustrations. Nevertheless, there is much in the book that will exceed the grasp of readers who have had general college-level courses in physics and mathematics. The key, as Penrose suggests in a prefatory note, is to skip the material that one cannot understand and forge ahead. The formidable array of formulas and diagrams should not deter readers from taking as much as they can get from this brilliant and wide-ranging book.