Part 1: The Basiscs, or lack thereof
Before we can have a sane discussion about "smart computers," we need to define a few things. Unfortunately, that is where most of the troubles begin. How do you define "intelligence"? It gets worse - how do you tell whether something is intelligent? Is a dolphin intelligent? How about a dog? A crab? Most scientists have no idea how to define "intelligence", "consciousness", "awareness", "thought", "mind", "soul", "free will" or anything that has to do with that "stuff" that seems to make humans fundamentally different from trees.
On the bright side, we seem to be settling in on a few conventions, so things are not that grim. The first important idea that is not at all obvious is that there is a fundamental difference between intelligence and consciousness. Several speakers on the DVD set agree on this. Here is the argument they give. Intelligence is not an absolute quantity; it is relative. Instead of calling objects either "intelligent" or "unintelligent", we should say that humans are more intelligent than dogs, and monkeys are more intelligent than birds. Consciousness, on the other hand, seems to be a binary property - humans are conscious and tables are not. (Although there is disagreement on that point, too.)
But what about intelligent computers? The argument is that many computers are intelligent already. Take, for example, Deep Blue - a computer that plays on par with the best human chess players in the world. In the world of chess, Deep Blue makes intelligent decisions. If intelligent is the opposite of stupid, then it is hard to argue agains that. This is where most people say, "Wait. That's not what we are talking about. Computers play chess using brute force calculations. There is nothing intelligent about that. It's just memorization." But how could you tell? If the only thing you could see was the chessboard of the match between Deep Blue and Garry Kasparov, could you say right away who was playing which side? The point is that Deep Blue is making intelligent decisions.
Of course, there is something fundamentally different about the way Kasparov and Deep Blue think. That is the difference between intelligence and consciousness. The argument is that we should stop looking for Artificial Intelligence (AI) and start looking for Artificial Consciousness. AI is already here, and there is nothing special about it. It is clear that Kasparov is conscious, and Deep Blue is not. Now if intelligence is the ability to make intelligent decisions, then what is consciousness? Humans are conscious. Dogs are conscious. Even bacteria seem to be conscious! If you look at some bacteria in the microscope, they wiggle. They move through water in ways that seem random. Some bacteria have the ability to swim towards salty water. If you have a water tank that has one side where the water is more salty, these bacteria will find a way to get there. The bacteria are making a decision. This decision has been programmed into their DNA by evolution. Are these bacteria intelligent? Probably not. Are they conscious? Probably yes. Are computers conscious? Almost certainly not.
So what is consciousness? That is probably the most difficult question. Scientists call it the "hard problem", a term coined by David Chalmers. It turns out that defining intelligence is much easier than defining consciousness.
Here is my personal view on the situation. This view is likely to change. I think that "life", "consciousness" and "intelligence" are all different properties. Intelligence is the ability to make decisions based on sensory inputs and past experiences, an ability to learn. In that sense, computers are intelligent. Life is that which is studied by biology. Several definitions of life have been proposed over the centuries, and they are basically right. Things that are alive grow, reproduce and die. Life is what distinguishes a tree from a rock. Consciousness is what distinguishes animals from plants. Bacteria are conscious. Flowers are not.
Many scientists disagree with this view. There also seem to be gray areas on the boundary between alive and dead. Crystals grow and reduce entropy; are they alive? Worker bees and infertile people do not reproduce; are they alive? Virii do not grow; are they alive? What about the possibility of silicon-based life forms? The bondary between plants and animals is not very clear either. What about mushrooms, or flowers that eat flies, or virii again? Maybe our current definition of life is completely wrong. Finding new life forms on other planets would certainly help us clarify things and zoom in on the properties that are unique to life only. There is also the possibility that it is all an illusion, and there is really no fundamental difference between a tree and a rock, but that argument sounds like giving up to me. There is clearly life on Earth. And there is clearly no life on the Moon. What's up with that?
Let's leave the concept of life to another discussion and move on to something that should be more interesting to humans. We, as humans, are not just alive. We are also conscious and intelligent. Before I talk about the "hard problem" of defining consciousness, let's get the simpler concept out of the way first - intelligence.