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In the Beginning is the Brain.... and then come the questions


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How can we or can we ever come up with criteria that distinguish us from animals, or for that matter, from a machine? Our spirit? Is it our intelligence? Is it our bodies? Or is it that we tell better stories? From our theologian at MIT's Artificial Intelligence Lab, here's a new metaphor for Who We Are, 2000.

This article appeared in the Spring 2000 issue of Spirituality & Health. Probably the biggest lesson that we have learned so far from trying to build humanoid robots at MIT is that machines make lousy metaphors for human beings. To figure out who we are, we have to look elsewhere. From evolutionary biology, we know that we share more than 98% of our genes with chimpanzees (and 50% with yeast). So, perhaps not surprisingly, the most basic biological metaphor used to split off the humanoid family is homo erectus (upright human), which sets us apart from the rest of evolution by our posture. Yet getting up on two legs does not transform a species into one that constantly ask deep and annoying questions about itself. For that we need some form of higher cognition or thinking capability or wisdom, so scientists talk about homo sapiens (wise human) and, in our case, of homo sapiens sapiens. But that too, is only a start. Observations comparing human and animal behavior show that, while plenty of other animals use tools, humans seem to be unique in building tools and then using them to build more comp …

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