Society

Fertilizing The Mind

Watson doesn't realize it, but this tree can be said to have more of a mind that "he" does. i i

Watson doesn't realize it, but this tree can be said to have more of a mind that "he" does. Roberto Schmidt/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Roberto Schmidt/AFP/Getty Images
Watson doesn't realize it, but this tree can be said to have more of a mind that "he" does.

Watson doesn't realize it, but this tree can be said to have more of a mind that "he" does.

Roberto Schmidt/AFP/Getty Images

Watson, IBM's powerful new supercomputer, won at Jeopardy again recently, this time beating teams of students from Harvard and MIT. You've got to wonder — I'm returning to this topic for the second time — what Watson's ascendence tells us about ourselves, and what makes us the kinds of being we are.

Which puts me in mind of the question, what is the difference between plants and animals? You don't have to look far for an answer. Plants are, well, planted. They stay put, rooted to the earth. They don't do anything. Or rather, they do a lot, but they do it the way power stations — power plants — do things. They make good use of what's at hand. You might think that plants can't see because they don't have eyes and nervous systems. But it gets closer to the truth to remember that plants don't have eyes and nervous systems because they don't need to see.

Animals, in contrast, are movers and shakers. They aren't just mobile plants; animals seek, hunt, avoid, fight and hide, and to do this they need to be very alert to the environment around them, to their situation, and also to their own needs. Because animals not only see their delicious prey, but also, at the same time, are attracted to the tempting mate even as they also notice the threatening predator, and because animals get it, because they understand, they are forced to make choices and to reason effectively about where they are.

Being able to see, like being able to think, are distinctive features of a distinctively animal mind. They have no place in the mind of a plant, if you'll allow that it makes sense to speak of plant minds at all.

Which brings us back to Watson. He has the mind of a plant. He's rooted beside his outlet. He sees nothing, seeks, hides, wants and fears nothing, and so he has nothing to think about. He processes information not the way an animal does — animals gather information, they grab on to it and pick it up — but the way a plant turns electromagnetic radiation into energy. Passively, and without understanding or interest. Watson doesn't really answer questions. He never questions anything! He can't even understand the questions. He simply reacts to text inputs.

Actually, it's stretching things to credit Watson even with the mind of a plant. For Watson isn't alive, and the plant's mind — its sensitivity and responsiveness — really only shows itself in the dynamics of the plant's active life. Watson has more in common with a thermostat than a plant.

Engineers make artifacts and the question engineers face is something like: How can you build a machine with a plant, or even an animal, mind? This isn't a question Mother Nature ever had to face. For plant and animal minds are not evolved from artifacts, but from living beings. And living beings, even the simplest ones, even the cell, are already engaged in an autonomous struggle to maintain themselves and survive. Living beings, even the simplest ones, already have something like rudimentary minds — motivated sensitivities and useful interests — and so they are way beyond Watson.


You can keep up with more of what Alva Noë is thinking on Facebook, Twitter and over at The Atlantic.

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