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What Do You Think About Machines That Think?

UVM robotics expert contributes essay to world-famous Edge conversation

Josh Bongard
UVM computer scientist Joshua Bongard wants to probe the nature of cognition, whether it’s a human, an animal or a robot doing the thinking. His new essay on how machines might think differently than people joins others by some of the most sophisticated and celebrated minds on the planet — on the Edge.org. (Photo: Shayne Lynn)

John Brockman's Edge Question is a major event in the intellectual calendar each year — its roots go back to talks he had with Isaac Asimov and others in 1980. This year's question, "What do you think about machines that think?" drew essays from Daniel C. Dennett, Nicholas Carr, Steven Pinker, Freeman Dyson, George Church and nearly two hundred other luminaries and Nobel Prize winners.

UVM computer scientist and robotics expert Joshua Bongard was asked to weigh in, too.

In his new essay, “Manipulators and Manipulanda,” Bongard asks you to “place a familiar object on a table in front of you, close your eyes, and manipulate that object such that it hangs upside down above the table.”  What did you do, and think, to know you were succeeding? Now, Bongard writes, “close your eyes again, and think about manipulating someone you know into doing something they may not want to do.” Did you employ similar thinking and how does the structure of your body — say, the fact that you have two hands (not one or fifty) — shape your thinking about both kinds of manipulation?

Bongard is deeply interested in how our bodies shape the way we think (and has a book on this topic). His essay continues this exploration, arguing machines must act in order to think, and “in order to act, they must have bodies to connect physical and abstract reasoning,” he notes.

But what if these machines do not have bodies shaped like humans, Bongard wonders. He describes a hypothetical robot shaped like a bush. “Picture a shrub in which each branch is an arm and each twig is a finger,” he writes. “This robot's fractal nature would allow it to manipulate thousands or millions of objects simultaneously. How might such a robot differ in its thinking about manipulating people, compared to how people think about manipulating people?” Bongard wonders.

To learn Bongard’s answer, read the whole essay. It’s online now and will appear in a printed book as each of the Edge questions — like “What will change everything?” (2009) and “What is your dangerous idea?” (2006) — has for the last decade.