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Review Essay

Ready for Robots?

How to Think About the Future of AI

In This Review

Possible Minds: Twenty-Five Ways of Looking at AI
Possible Minds: Twenty-Five Ways of Looking at AI
By John Brockman (ed.)
Penguin, 2019 320 pp. Purchase

In 1955, John McCarthy coined the term “artificial intelligence” (AI) in a grant proposal that he co-wrote with his colleague Marvin Minsky and a group of other computer scientists seeking funding for a workshop they hoped to hold at Dartmouth College the following summer. Their choice of words set in motion decades of semantic squabbles (“Can machines think?”) and fueled anxieties over malicious robots such as HAL 9000, the sentient computer in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, and the cyborg assassin played by Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Terminator. If McCarthy and Minsky had chosen a blander phrase—say, “automaton studies”—the concept might not have appealed as much to Hollywood producers and journalists, even as the technology developed apace.

But McCarthy and Minsky weren’t thinking about the long term. They had a much narrower motive for coming up with a new phrase: they were reluctant to invite Norbert Wiener to the program. Wiener was one of the founders of the nascent field, a child prodigy who had graduated from college at age 14 and received a Ph.D. in philosophy from Harvard four years later. To describe his work on how animals and machines rely on feedback mechanisms for control and communication, Wiener had chosen to use the word “cybernetics,” a term that derives from the ancient Greek word for “helmsman.” He titled his 1948 book Cybernetics, and after it became a surprise bestseller, other researchers began applying the term to their attempts to get computers to process information much in the way that a human brain does.

There was no question that Wiener was brilliant. The trouble was that he also happened to be a pugnacious know-it-all who would have made the summer at Dartmouth miserable. So McCarthy and Minsky avoided Wiener’s term, in part to make it easier to justify shutting him out. They weren’t studying cybernetics; they were studying artificial intelligence.

It wasn’t only Wiener’s personality that was a problem. The Dartmouth program was aimed at practitioners,

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