Our quest for—and expectations of—artificial intelligence are rather like those of the alchemists.
For more than a century, alchemists tried to graft the attributes of gold—yellow, fusible, inert, malleable—onto a single substance. Modern AI advocates are doing just the same, taking the attributes of “intelligence”—raw computational power, recognizing faces, mapping spaces, processing language, spotting patterns—and hoping that if we smush them together in a very powerful computer, somehow it will magically add up to what we call “intelligence.”
But you can’t make gold from lead. And you can’t make intelligence from code.
The golden years
Before the scientific revolution, many wise people believed that things were made of some sort of underlying substance. This gave rise to the pursuit of alchemy: the medieval fusing together of different matters to create new ones. The theory went that if you could get hold of just the right combination of attributes and swap them around, you could take some base metals, smash them together, and create some bona-fide gold. Hey presto, you’re rich!
And people really did try hard to make gold. So seriously was this taken that from 1404 to 1689, there was a law in England against “multiplication”: Not the mathematical operation, but the multiplication of gold through alchemy. Many “very serious people” thought that such a capability would significantly destabilize the prevailing economic and social order.
The theory went that you could take some base metals, smash them together, and create some bona-fide gold. You generally don’t go to the trouble of passing a law against something that you think is impossible. Nor would you go to the trouble of trying to repeal the law, as Robert Boyle—one of the pioneers of modern chemistry—did for most of his working life. Indeed, it was at his insistence that the law was finally taken off the statue books at the end of the 17th century.
Why was he so adamant that people be allowed to “multiply” gold? When Boyle died, John Locke, England’s most influential philosopher, was an executor of the will. Among the many manuscripts Boyle left behind, Locke found Boyle’s recipe for the production of gold, and immediately wrote to Isaac Newton (yes, the Isaac Newton—himself a practicing alchemist) to communicate the news, and set about acquiring the materials to carry out the experiment. Boyle evidently thought he’d discovered how…