I just read a recent piece on The Guardian bearing the title “20 predictions for the next 25 years”. Amongst the usual predictions as to whether the US will hand over its super power seat to another nation or whether medicine will finally find a cure for cancer or AIDS, what struck me the most was David Eagleman’s overestimation of neuroscience: “We’ll be able to plug information streams directly into the cortex”. Of course, predictions are based on conjectures and speculations of all sorts but the vertiginous advance of science in the 20th century must have certainly surprised even the most skeptical minds. After all, no prediction can be refuted in advance, or not really, for the future can prove one very wrong, and this specially in terms of scientific discovery. No doubt, this beautiful piece of technological machinery which I’m using to write this piece, my beloved Macbook Pro, was simply unimaginable just a few decades ago, when the only real computer available was the massive and clumsy ENIAC.
Nonetheless I too, like Antonio Tabucchi, confess lacking any particular talent for prediction, because—in the words of the Pessoa expert—“when you have three or four elements in hand, you don’t have to be a genius to reach certain conclusions.” But the question is whether we actually have those three or four elements in hand, so that we can spread ourselves out and make such a bold prediction, like Eagleman, himself a neuroscientist, dared to make.
Although Eagleman’s statements are lightly softened by ‘maybes’ and ‘probablys’, extravagant prophecies, unfortunately, are not at all unknown in the fields dealing with the sciences of the mind.
In a 1958 famous paper, Herbert Simon and Allen Newell gave a futuristic assessment of that which, at their time, was called heuristics—thought to be comparable to human intelligence simulated in a digital machine:
1. That within ten years a digital computer will be the world’s chess champion, unless the rules bar it from competition.
2. That within ten years a digital computer will discover and prove an important new mathematical theorem.
3. That within ten years a digital computer will write music that will be accepted by critics as possessing considerable aesthetic value.
4. That within ten years most theories in psychology will take the form of computer programs, or of qualitative statements about the characteristics of computer programs.
Nobody has to remind us today of the fact that until now computers do not think—unless one entertained a petty and quite reductive understanding of human thinking. But still today the orthodoxy in cognitive science has it that general assumptions about the mind and intelligent thought and behavior are to be held, such as the following: the mind is an information processing system, a representational device and in some sense a computer (cf. the preface to the Blackwell Companion to Cognitive Science, edited by Bechtel and Graham). This is why it is not surprising to hear one high profile researcher and founder of these ideas and bizarre sci-fi dreams, Marvin Minsky, declaring that AI’s brain-dead while at the same time hoping for intelligent robotic waitresses to serve him martinis.
The problem is that maybe some of those assumptions are plain wrong and that basic human coping is not to be measured on the basis of philosophical suppositions pretty much surpassed. Some positive signs are to be found recently. Out of Our Heads. Why You Are Not Your Brain, and Other Lessons from the Biology of Consciousness by Alva Noë is a good example that you can be both scientifically well-informed and be critically aware of the philosophical limitations of AI and cognitive science.
So I’m ready to make a few predictions myself. Cognitive science will be fundamentally reformed by situated cognition, embedded and embodied approaches and phenomenology, or else it’ll keep stumbling upon failure after failure. This will contribute to the definitive collapse of the distinction between analytical and continental philosophy and that anodyne gap will be saluted as a theoretical provincialism of the past. And believe me, some distinguished researchers around the world and some young PhD students like myself are already working on it.
But, you know, one has to be cautious with predictions and that’s why, on the matter, I tend to agree with Niels Bohr: “Prediction is very difficult, especially if it is about the future”.