The Emperor's New Mind

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 34)

With the rapid development of computing machines that has taken place in the second half of the twentieth century, “computer scientists,” experts in the design and application of such machines, have achieved remarkable success in tackling problems of increasing difficulty that go beyond the rapid calculation capability of the earlier machines. For example, the ability of machines to play chess with human adversaries—and usually to emerge victorious—is well known. The capability of machines to analyze complex data from the world of business and to predict the probable outcome of certain courses of action has proved of considerable value. Certainly the speed with which machines execute their tasks is very impressive to any human who contemplates their output. Further useful applications have also been made in the areas of robotics and even psychology. It almost seems as though computers can “think.” There is a bumper sticker that says “Computer Scientists have Artificial Intelligence.”

Among the community of computer scientists is a subgroup who are especially intrigued by the concept of “Artificial Intelligence” or “Al.” Considerable time, energy, and money has come to be devoted to the pursuit of its development by individuals and institutions. There is a still smaller subgroup who proclaim their belief that it is only a matter of time before the capability of computers will be equal to that of any human being. Some members of this group consider that present-day machines are already “thinking” and possess “consciousness” but at a more primitive level than will be possible in the future. These views, generally labeled “strong Al,” are the subject of Roger Penrose’s critique in The Emperor’s New Mind: Concerning Computers, Minds, and the Laws of Physics.

Penrose, a professor of mathematics at the University of Oxford, recounts that he was impelled, even “goaded” into writing this book as a response to statements aired on television by proponents of strong Al. Penrose is by no means lacking in appreciation of the feats already being performed, and likely to be performed in the future, by computers at levels of speed, accuracy, and complexity that far exceed human capabilities. His objection is to the notion that in the future all human mental activity will be able to be duplicated by computers. In part his objections lie on philosophical grounds, but the main body of his argument presented in The Emperor’s New Mind is based on considerations from modern physics and mathematics, an approach no previous author has taken. In addressing the question of the validity of strong Al Penrose uses “Adam” as a spokesperson in his prologue and epilogue. Adam is “the little lad in the third row” during the unveiling ceremony for “Ultronic,” the supercomputer of the future; it is Adam who poses a reasonable question that Ultronic cannot comprehend, much less answer. By his choice of a title that alludes to Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” Penrose reveals his true opinion of strong Al.

Penrose brings a rich background of education and accomplishment in mathematical physics to bear on what is basically a philosophical discussion of human intelligence, coming to the conclusion that the human mind can never be duplicated by a machine of any kind. To persuade the reader to accept his views, Penrose marshals an impressive array of concepts born of twentieth century physics and mathematics. His extensive treatment of these, often startling, ideas puts...

(The entire section is 1459 words.)