The Mind and the Machine

A Review of Digital People by Sidney Perkowitz

Darryl Neill, Professor of Psychology

Vol. 7 No. 2
October/November 2004

Upon Reflection
University leadership urges a new "discipline" of planning

My job is to make sure that the academic focus of the institution is always front and center.
Earl Lewis, Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs

If we’re going to be rigid, operating in the nineteenth century and resisting change, then we’ll go the way of the Light Brigade.
Kenneth Thorpe, Woodruff Professor of Health Policy and Management

Phase to phase

Strategic Planning Steering Committee

To learn more

Scholarship in Time
Or, Sipping champagne from a fire hydrant
Bruce Knauft, Samuel C. Dobbs Professor of Anthropology
and Executive Director,
The Institute for Comparative and International Studies

Is the Bible Green?
Ancient Israelite and early Christian perspectives
on the natural world
Carol A. Newsom, Professor of Old Testament

Further reading

The Mind and the Machine
A Review of Digital People by Sidney Perkowitz
Darryl Neill, Professor of Psychology


Return to Contents

In The Identity of Man, a slim, 1965 volume of lectures delivered at the American Museum of Natural History, Jacob Bronowski wrote: “The central theme of these essays is the crisis of confidence which springs from each man’s wish to be a mind and a person, in the face of the nagging fear that he is a mechanism. The central question that I ask is: Can man be both a machine and a self?”

While I suppose if he wrote the above today Bronowski would use “human” rather than “man,” the thrust of the statement remains relevant. It fits right in with the oft-repeated litany of the demoralizing effects of knowledge about our species acquired over the past few centuries in the West. While most people have adjusted to the idea that the Earth is not the center of the universe (usually associated with Galileo), a large percentage of Americans have not adjusted to the idea of Darwinian evolution, and the notion of unconscious motives (made famous by Freud) is still suspect for many.

Can the idea be far behind that one’s mind is simply the operation of a machine? Candler Professor of Physics Sidney Perkowitz, in his new book Digital People, says this notion will become more prevalent as artificial beings appear in our environment. His book is a brief report on the history and current work on artificial beings, succinctly delivered without polemic.

Digital People is organized with an overview, followed by detailed chapters, and ending with speculation and thoughtful consideration. The overview is unique, focusing initially on “the virtual history of artificial beings.” The artificial beings include various literary creatures, from those you know (such as the Frankenstein creation and Asimov’s I, Robot) to those you may never have heard of. He devotes considerable coverage to beings in films, including the robot in the 1927 film Metropolis and the “Terminator,” played by that well-known Austro-Californian, now governor of the Golden State. These chapters place the topic of the book squarely within society.
Introductory chapters are followed by chapters on real artificial (an oxymoron if ever there was one) beings, ranging from Greek automata to the history of “thinking machines”—computers. These chapters form a major part of the book, which covers artificial intelligence, prosthetic devices, and bionics. They are followed by relatively brief coverage of “neurophilosophy,” touching on major points by Searle, Dennett, and Chalmers. Then it is back to the construction of contemporary automata, with descriptions of creatures such as Honda’s ASIMO (—a bipedal, walking, three-foot-tall humanoid robot) and Kismet, a stationary “sociable robot” at mit (

The last quarter of Digital People considers highlights of current thinking in artificial intelligence and robotics. Topics include the definition of intelligence (unitary or multiple), the role of emotion (now a hot topic in both organic and inorganic “brain” research), and the Mount Everest of neuroscience, psychology, and philosophy: consciousness.

Looking over the history of automata and “thinking machines,” one can see the progression from “we are one step below the angels” to “our bodies are machines but our minds are not” (for example, Descartes), to “our bodies and our minds are machines” (contemporary cognitive neuroscience). I am reminded of a dinner I attended at a national neuroscience meeting. The dinner was devoted to cognitive neuroscience; the table where I sat was populated by luminaries of the field. One of the attendees told of being closed in a hotel in Washington for days while serving on a grant review panel. The panelists became “stir crazy” and decided to set out on the streets of DC, buttonholing people on the street to ask them what they thought about the brain. The answers were along the lines of, “people get brain tumors” or, “epilepsy is a brain disease.” The answers were not anything resembling, “your self is based on your brain.”

When I described the above episode to an incoming graduate student, the student told me of her experience in Colorado Springs, a center of fundamentalist branches of more than one religion. She was doing some volunteer teaching of neuroscience in an elementary school class. After she told the class that their feelings were based on brain activities, the teacher took her aside and angrily told her that “feelings are not in the brain—they’re in the heart.” That nagging fear that we are a mechanism was front and center.

The student’s experience was an example of how, when told that “your self is based on your brain, and it is a kind of machine,” many people react with unease or outright disagreement. As an undergraduate, one of my best friends asked me, “If a brain was moved from one person to another, would their mind go with it?” When I replied, “Sure,” he (who became a Lutheran pastor) found it astounding but not noxious. On the other hand, one of my undergraduate research colleagues at the time (who became a career military man) accused me of being a communist. For a person attuned to contemporary neuroscience, however, the idea of “mind is the operation of brain” is accepted to the point of banality. From this standpoint, the possibility of human-constructed machines that declare self-consciousness is not surprising. Rather, it is a problem of creative insight, hard-won research results, and time.

At the beginning of the final chapter of Digital People, Perkowitz writes, “The development of advanced artificial beings and of bionic humans is well under way.” His book is an excellent, relatively brief summary of the past and present state of this work. As for the future, it may be that we can only get so far. Early prognosticators of the ability of artificial intelligence to develop programs for language translation and comprehension were proven wrong in their optimism.

It may be that the challenges described in this book will, in the end, prove too daunting. For instance, Perkowitz notes, “No matter how rapid the computation, beings based on computer-style processing might end up thinking like . . . well, computers.” This statement made me remember a friend who, attending a meeting of computer and neuroscientists, was challenged by the head of Motorola Semiconductor: “Just tell us the design of the brain; we’ll put it on a chip!” Could it be that new computer architectures based on insights from neuroscience, rather than the design advanced by the Princeton mathematician John Von Neumann in 1945, will form the basis of new “thinking machines?” From the standpoint of an experimental scientist, it is foolish to stand back and declare that, based on principle X, it cannot be done. We can only see how far we can go.

Assuming that a convergence of neuroscience and computer science is successful, we can muse about the impact on human thinking. As I mentioned above, many Americans have major problems with the Darwinian explanation of evolution. From the viewpoint of mainstream scientists, using the language of my freshmen, that concern is “so nineteenth century.” If the work described in this book proceeds, with the invasion of artificial thinking machines into our home appliances and our bodies, and perhaps the creation of beings possessing some degree of consciousness, the challenge to our self-esteem as a species and as individuals will increase.

Representative Tom DeLay of Texas, who wields much power in the current U.S. Congress, argued after the massacre at Columbine High that this tragedy would not have happened if those students hadn’t been taught they were descended from monkeys (which, incidentally, is a scientifically incorrect statement—humans and monkeys are thought to come from a common ancestor). In the conclusion of his book, Perkowitz writes, “The most important benefit, however, might be a spiritual realization about our place in the universe.” I wonder if Mr. DeLay knows what is lurking in the laboratories of computer science and robotics.