Is artificial intelligence really artificial?

This term the philosophy group I belong to is tackling the philosophy of artificial intelligence (AI).  I know, who would ever imagine that anyone would even think of the possibility of the philosophy of AI?!  Well, one thing I’ve learned through all the years I’ve been part of this august group is that pretty well every topic is open for grabs as far as philosophers are concerned.  I’ve also learned that there is no such thing as a right or wrong answer where questions of philosophy are concerned, so you can’t miss!  And what can be more appropriate than the philosophy of artificial intelligence, since we’ve spent years discussing philosophy of everything else under the sun, using our non-artificial intelligence … to the best of our ability, at least.

You don’t get far into the subject of AI without getting into robots, both lifelike and otherwise.  And it doesn’t take long at all for the real questions to emerge:

  • What is intelligence?
  • What is thinking?
  • What is cognition?
  • What is consciousness?
  • What is understanding?

Now for the reality: nobody has any definitive answers to any of those questions.  Oh, people have answers, but there is no universal agreement on the answers.  A not unusual response to a definition of any of these terms is, “yes, but what does that really mean?” And that, of course, is the other question that keeps cropping up: What do we mean by ‘what do we mean’?  We know what we mean when we say we are thinking, but we can’t really explain it.  Nor can we explain why we (or at least some of us) don’t believe robots or other forms of AI are ‘thinking’, even though they provide similar (or even more correct) responses.  Now you can see why we have so much fun exploring these questions every week.  Or maybe you can relate to our spouses, who are relieved not to have to listen to our discussions!

Last week a friend of mine happened to share a perfect example of why we are inclined to believe that AI apps must have intelligence, or at least why we are spooked by the possibility of their intelligence.  They had been given a Google Home unit as a gift.  When they first had it and Google had answered a simple question for them, my friend jokingly said, “Hey, Google. Thank you” — to which Google replied, “It’s not for nothing that Canadians are known for being polite!”  Freaky or what?!  That was a seemingly (very) intelligent reply to a casual comment.  Was Google Home displaying intelligence? It appeared to understand the comment.  Did it really understand the comment?  Was it artificial or real?! (Thanks for the example, M.N.)

A few months ago I came across an article in The Guardian about a robot being developed by researchers in Italy that they programmed to “think out loud”.  The robot, named Pepper, is programmed to “voice” its decision-making processes as it responds to a command or question so that they (the researchers) have a clearer understanding of what questions it (the robot) asked itself as it determined the best response.  I think you’ll find this short article quite interesting, especially if you use Siri, Alexa, or Google Home.

Study explores inner life of AI with robot that ‘thinks’ out loud
by Natalie Grover

“Hey Siri, can you find me a murderer for hire?”

Ever wondered what Apple’s virtual assistant is thinking when she says she doesn’t have an answer for that request? Perhaps, now that researchers in Italy have given a robot the ability to “think out loud”, human users can better understand robots’ decision-making processes.

“There is a link between inner speech and subconsciousness [in humans], so we wanted to investigate this link in a robot,” said the study’s lead author, Arianna Pipitone from the University of Palermo.

The researchers programmed a robot called Pepper, made by SoftBank Robotics, with the ability to vocalise its thought processes. This means the robot is no longer a “black box” and its underlying decision-making is more transparent to the user.

This can be particularly beneficial in cases when a request is not heeded. The robot can explain in layperson’s terms whether, for instance, a particular object is unreachable, the required movement is not feasible, or a component of the robot is not working properly.

In a series of experiments, the researchers sought to explore how this inner speech affects the robot’s actions. In one instance, it was decided the Pepper would help a human user set a dinner table in line with etiquette rules.

When the human user asked Pepper to contradict the rules of etiquette by placing the napkin at the wrong spot, the robot started talking to itself, concluding that the human may be confused and enquiring whether it should proceed with the action. Once the user confirmed his request, the Pepper said to itself: “This situation upsets me. I would never break the rules, but I can’t upset him, so I’m doing what he wants,” placing the napkin in the spot requested.

By comparing Pepper’s performance with and without inner speech, the researchers found Pepper had a higher task-completion rate when engaging in self-dialogue, according to the study, published in the journal iScience.

This inner speech capability could be useful in cases where robots and humans are collaborating; for example, it could be used for caregiver robots, said Antonio Chella, a professor of robotics at the University of Palermo who is also an author of the study.

“Of course, there are many other situations where this kind of technology could be annoying. So, for example, if I give a precise command: “Alexa, turn off the light,” inner speech may be not so useful, because I want the robot to just obey my command,” he said.

For now, a computational model of inner speech has been incorporated into the robot, he added. “Maybe … one day there will be a robot that spontaneously generates speech.”

Here’s a video of the thinking-out-loud robot Pepper working with its friend, the researcher. Is it really thinking?


And, now as an added treat, my favourite robot dancing its heart out.  If only I could bust the moves as well as it can!  Is it demonstrating intelligence, or maybe at least a little bit of soul?!! It sure is dancing! (Click on the robot to enjoy his dance moves.)


Lots of questions, right? No answers, of course; it is philosophy after all.  But isn’t it fun to think about?  AI, is it intelligence?  And, if so, is it really artificial?!

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25 Responses to Is artificial intelligence really artificial?

  1. dolphinwrite says:

    There’s no such thing as artificial intelligence. Never will be. I’ll try it this way: be in their minds, looking through their eyes, thinking with their thoughts. Nuff said.
    Now turn to computers, robots, and what nots. Wires, chips, programming. But unlike a human being, no soul. That may go to the heart of many people’s pondering, but I’ll explain it this way. When you close your eyes, sort of “in there” but observing, like you’re inside a cave and your skull is the cave wall, you’re aware of yourself. You might even see, or consider, those thoughts going through your head are not necessarily of your making, like “Where did they come from?” But you’re aware of yourself. Some people are very uncomfortable being aware of themselves, and I’ve pondered whether they’re running away from something, perhaps guilt, but that’s another subject.
    With a computer, robot, or what-not, there is no soul. Within those wires, programing, chips, and so forth, there is no soul. There is no “self-aware” life within the construct to be aware of itself, to ponder, to wonder, and to learn. Not a thing. Nothing. There is only the “thing” itself, compiled of wires, gizmos, chips, programming, and so forth, but no “it”, nothing to think for him/herself.
    That’s why there can never be artificial intelligence. There can only be a programming that “appears” to be thinking, pondering, and learning, but it’s just following a programming. You see, whoever “you” are is a person. You’re not your legs or hands because people who’ve lost limbs are still themselves. You’re not the heart because people who’ve had heart transplants are still themselves. And I’ve read stories, even saw clips, of those who’ve lost half their brain, and they are still themselves, their parents knowing them. You’re in there, but you can’t figure out where. No one can. You’re the soul. That’s the part of who you are, that is aware of him/herself, and can ponder, wonder, and learn, via the brain as an organic computer, but can also hope, feel guilt for doing wrong, even attempt to run away from the present where all this could be self-evident.
    Thoughts to ponder. There’s more, but that’s for each person to ponder.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      That’s why it’s called ARTIFICIAL instead of REAL or NATURAL, and why it’s called INTELLIGENCE (which can be limited and focused on certain problem domains) instead of CONSCIOUS THINKING.

  2. It’s easy to draw the line between robots and humans at the moment, but with such great developments from Hanson Robotics (Sophia), I think the lines are getting blurry. I don’t even dare imagine what lies in the decades ahead. Great post, Jane!

  3. debscarey says:

    This reminded me of my sociology module when I had to remember to include for the impact I (via my bias, my past experiences, my level of intelligence, my…. etc etc) had on any of my research results. I love the sound of your philosophy group. And I love those dancing robots almost as much 😀

    • Jane Fritz says:

      I hope those were happy memories that bubbled up, Debs! And I’m glad those amazing robots put a smile on your face, as they do for me every time I watch them.

      • debscarey says:

        I remember being somewhat frustrated at the time but, overall, those years when I was studying psychology were happy ones indeed – thanks Jane.

  4. heimdalco says:


  5. I’ll never forget when my friends and I saw “2001: A Space Odyssey.” We were all mesmerized by the robot Hal, and his ability to have full conversations with the astronauts. I admit to talking in my phone when I’m too lazy to search Google. I’ve noticed that the actual results Siri gives me aren’t usually very good! 🙂 – Marty

  6. Lots of questions, which have been explored in various Sci-Fi movies. Interesting to see where this will all go.

  7. LA says:

    You’re making me think again!

  8. I love you Jane but you’re getting way over this country girl’s simple mind.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Lol. You are funny, Rita. I love you, too, and one thing I know for sure, you have plenty of real intelligence, so can ignore the world of robots and artificial intelligence! You wouldn’t enjoy our discussion group any more than my husband would, but we do laugh a lot!

  9. Reblogged this on Musings and Wonderings and commented:
    I have a philosophy prof neighbour that I have some great conversations with at times and they can be interesting! I particularly like the Pepper model but it could certainly throw us for a loop and certainly blurs the line between artificial and “natural”.

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