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Firas A.

(ISM IB2-A)

Can a machine know?

The rapid advancement of technology over the past few decades has allowed the construction
of extremely complex machines, such as computers. As certain machines, equipped with
artificial intelligence were shown to the public, the question was raised of whether a machine
can actually know or not. This question, asked so many times before, is exactly what this
essay focuses on answering as accurately as possible. However, in order to be able to set up
the framework for a valid discussion about the question of whether a machine can know or
not, the definition of the two key terms, “machine” and “know”, must be established first.
By definition a machine is generally accepted to be a device that alters or conveys energy.
Ever since the first machine was invented, the purpose of it was to do a certain amount of
work through modifying or transmitting force and motion.1 The simplest example of a
machine, whereas only direction is changed, is the single pulley. However, for the purpose of
this essay the focus will be on the computer as it is the only machine that comes close to the
ability of knowing, considering the recent technological breakthroughs in the field of artificial
intelligence (AI).
Since there is not one definition of knowledge upon which all scholars agree, the term in
question will be defined according to Plato. His view is regarded to be the “classical”
definition. According to Plato at least three criteria must be satisfied in order for there to be
knowledge; a statement must be justified, true and believed. However, it is worth mentioning
that some philosophers believe these conditions, put forward by Plato, to be insufficient.
Thus, there is still an ongoing debate amongst philosophers about the actual acquisition of
knowledge.
Nevertheless, it is generally accepted that the acquisition of knowledge entails some
composite cognitive activities such as language, perception, reason and emotion2 – which are
at the same time the four ways of knowing.
These four ways of knowing play a very significant role in this essay, as they, after being
applied to humans and machines, contribute a great deal towards the answer to the main
question posed in the beginning of this essay. Therefore the main part of this essay focuses on
the four ways of knowing – while applying them to humans and machines for comparison.
However, the discussion shall not be limited to the four ways of knowing but also consider the
different areas of knowledge.

1Source: http://wordnet.princeton.edu/perl/webwn?s=machine
2Source:
http://www.google.de/search?q=define:+knowledge&hl=de&rlz=1B3GGGL_deNL210NL210&oi=definel&defl
=en
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Firas A. (ISM IB2-A)

Starting off with perception, it should be mentioned that it mainly involves the process of
acquiring, interpreting, selecting, and organizing sensory information.3 Only machines with
appropriate hardware are able to react to specific stimuli such as temperature or the absence of
light. For example, I recently programmed my laptop in a way that should the temperature
inside the internal hard disk exceed 75°C then a forced shut down would be induced in order
to prevent physical damage. Thus whereas humans are naturally well aware of the
environment surrounding them, machines could be – but only with the aid of appropriate
hardware and programming. This means that there is no way for machines to act solely
independent or react to truly random emotions such as laughter without having been equipped
with the right tools in advance. However, as mentioned above, perception does not only
involve the process of acquiring sensory information, but also the interpretation, selection and
organization of it. Thus, a machine not being able to “understand” acquired information due
to its limited interpretation skills, cannot be regarded to “know” by means of perception.

Reason is the ability of the human mind to form and operate on concepts in abstraction, in
varied accordance with rationality and logic — terms with which reason shares heritage.4
Reason plays a central role in science as it allows scientists to arrive at generalizations
through inductive reasoning. However, inductive reasoning is also known to be a main source
of stereotypes. This is mainly due to the fact that incorrect statements can still remain
logically coherent and therefore considered to be true. For example “If no eagles build their
nests on low trees and eagles are birds, no birds build their nests on low trees.” Even though
this statement is clearly incorrect it remains logically coherent.5 Compared to humans who
often base their knowledge on reason, computers almost entirely depend on reason – as the
fundamentals (binary code6) of any computer are entirely based on math and therefore logic.
Furthermore one could argue that computers, just like humans, have a thought process. The
only difference to the human thought process would be that the computer did not develop this
process on its own, but it was rather given to it by a human. Therefore a computer can, given
the appropriate programming code containing a thought process, use this thought process –
with the limitation of not being able to modify it. Thus in case the computer was given an

3Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Perception
4Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reason
5This phenomenon is also known as “weak induction” as the link between the premise and the inductive
conclusion is weak. Source: http://209.85.135.104/search?sourceid=navclient-ff&ie=UTF-
6Definition: Coding system using the digits 0 and 1 to represent a letter, numeral or other character in a
computer. For example: the character "A" in ASCII code becomes 0100 0001 in binary. Source:
http://www.pricedrightllc.com/id81.htm
2
Firas A. (ISM IB2-A)

erroneous thought process it would not be able to locate the source of the error and debug 7 it
independently. However, it is also worth mentioning that recent discoveries in artificial
intelligence are increasingly changing the situation and therefore the validity of the previously
mentioned points (e.g. inability of the computer to debug itself). The first applications that are
in possession of a programming code that actually rewrites itself have been demonstrated to
the public recently. One example is the Delta Debugging algorithm. It has been successfully
used to detect and correct failure-inducing program input (e.g. a HTML page that makes a
Web browser fail).8 Thus a machine might be able to “know” through “reason” in the near
future.

A language is a system, used to communicate, comprising a set of arbitrary symbols and a set
of rules (or grammar) by which the manipulation of these symbols is governed.9 Machines,
computers in particular, use so called “formal languages” which are regarded to be artificial
entities, e.g. programming languages.10 Language plays a very significant role in science, as
scientists coming up with certain theories oftentimes depend on other scientists’ findings
which in turn had been communicated through language. In general, languages serve the
purpose of communication, if between humans in oral/written form or between computers by
means of exchanging binary code. In this area the only property that really distinguishes
humans from machines is that humans can use their language without certain limitations. We
can use the language and “freestyle” choosing to ignore guidelines or codes. For a machine
“ignoring” is simply not an option. Furthermore usually when I talk to my friends I do not
have to speak whole sentences for them to understand me fully. They simply know what I
mean. Now imagining this situation with a computer, where only half complete binary codes
are arriving in the operating system – the computer would not be able to do anything with
those bits and pieces of incomplete information.

Emotion, in its most general definition, is an intense mental state that arises autonomically in
the nervous system rather than through conscious effort, and evokes either a positive or
negative psychological response.11 In case of machines it is called affective computing which
is a branch of artificial intelligence that deals with the design of devices which can process

7Definition of “debug”: The process of finding and eliminating computer software "bugs" (errors). Source:
http://www.sivideo.com/9pcterms.htm
8Source: http://www.st.cs.uni-sb.de/dd/
9Source: http://www.google.de/search?q=define%3A+language&sourceid=navclient-ff&ie=UTF-
8&rlz=1B3GGGL_deNL210NL210
10Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Language#Non-human_languages
11Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emotion
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Firas A. (ISM IB2-A)

emotions.12 The potential field of application for affective computing is very broad. One
suggestion for a potential application of affective computing: the monitoring of society. The
given example involved a car that can monitor (through cameras reading facial expression
etc.) its passengers’ emotions. Given the scenario that the driver is angry for some reason, the
car would warn surrounding cars – taking additional safety measures. Therefore one may
assume that computers, if appropriately equipped, can react to emotions. There are also
computers that can express emotions, but they do not really understand them – they only
imitate other human’s emotions. However, all the emotions and reactions a machine can come
up with have originated from a human who actually programmed the machine to react in a
certain way.

Finally, the three criteria in order for there to be knowledge put forward by Plato shall be
examined. This is necessary in order to demonstrate how in the end the answer to the question
of “whether a machine can know” entirely depends on how knowledge is being defined.

According to Plato at least three criteria must be satisfied in order for there to be knowledge; a
statement must be justified, true and believed.
As the main purpose of most computers is to record vast amounts of data or truth the first
criterion is fulfilled easily. Furthermore all it takes for a computer to be able to justify is a
programmer who actually feeds it with information. At last the criterion of belief has to be
fulfilled, which is done easily as a computer has no other option than to believe and accept the
syntax of its programmer. There is nothing like the “questioning” of the programming code or
“doubting” about its correctness.

Thus when only taking into account Plato’s three criteria, I believe that a machine can know.
On the other hand having examined the four ways of knowing very closely leaves me with a
generally hopeless impression for a machine being able to know – given the current level of
technological advancement. While discussing how the four ways of knowing relate to
machines it became increasingly evident that a machine is only able to do what it has been
programmed to do. Abstract thoughts and actions are categorically impossible to achieve.
Thus a machine simply serves its functions and is also limited to those.
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Word count: 1594

12Affective computing – an interdisciplinary field spanning computer sciences, psychology, and cognitive
science. Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Affective_computing
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Firas A. (ISM IB2-A)

The more you know, the more you realize that you know nothing.
 Socrates

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Firas A. (ISM IB2-A)

Bibliography

– Michael Woolman: An Introduction to Theory of Knowledge, IBID Press, 2000


– World Wide Web:
– Princeton University: Cognitive Science Laboratory
URL: http://wordnet.princeton.edu/perl/webwn?s=machine
Retrieved: 03/03/2007 18:22:31 GMT

– Wikipedia: Psychology Portal, Emotion


URL: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emotion
Retrieved: 09/03/2007 21:05:02 GMT

– Universität des Saarlandes: Prof. Zeller, Delta Debugging


URL: http://www.st.cs.uni-sb.de/dd /
Retrieved: 16/03/2007 22:23:18 GMT

– Wikipedia: Unsolved Problems in Neuroscience, Perception


URL: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Perception
Retrieved: 04/03/2007 17:25:22 GMT

– A. V. I. D.: Glossary of Terms, Binary code


URL: http://www.pricedrightllc.com/id18.html
Retrieved: 07/02/2007 15:34:05 GMT

– Wikipedia: Epistemology, Reason


URL: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reason
Retrieved: 09/03/2007 20:02:41 GMT

– Google Germany: Definitions of Knowledge, Another Collection


URL:http://www.google.de/search?q=define:+knowledge&hl=de&rlz=1B
3GGGL_deNL210NL210&oi=definel&defl=en
Retrieved: 08/03/2007 23:56:21 GMT

– Google Germany: Definitions of Language, Another Collection


URL:http://www.google.de/search?q=define%3A+language&sourceid=na
vclient-ff&ie=UTF-8&rlz=1B3GGGL_deNL210NL210
Retrieved: 09/03/2007 00:12:54 GMT

– Wikipedia: Languages, Non-human languages


URL: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Language#Non-human_languages
Retrieved: 05/03/2007 18:04:47 GMT

– Stan Nicotera: Computer Terms, Debug


URL: http://www.sivideo.com/9pcterms.htm
Retrieved: 25/02/2007 12:55:32 GMT

– Wikipedia: Artificial Intelligence, Affective Computing


URL: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Affective_computing
Retrieved: 01/03/2007 14:59:01 GMT