PA: We had optimistic expectations about when true intelligence or sentience would be achieved in artificial devices, but I think that it is possible. Intelligent machines already exist -- ourselves. The fact that matter can naturally come together to make things like humans that think shows that the process can be replicated. Of course, people argue against this. Some people say we have some kind of “immaterial” or “supernatural” soul. I think that is an incoherent concept. Roger Penrose and John Searle both argue against artificial intelligence using computers in different ways -- and I think they are both wrong.
MLU: So a human being is really a kind of machine, and the "soul" is a man-made concept?
PA: Yes. Of course, I am not referring here to the uses of the word soul when we say things like, “That piece of music moved my soul.” Sometimes the word soul is used just to express things in a poetic way, and I do not have any problem with that, but that is not the kind of “soul” we are talking about here. We are interested in “soul” as an explanation of consciousness. I do not think it does any such thing. It is not just that the explanation is wrong. There is no explanation there. Nothing is being claimed: it is just a placeholder word used to answer the question “What causes consciousness?” in a way that answers nothing.
Suppose someone asks me “What causes hurricanes?” and I answer “zervok.” When they ask me what “zervok” means I can say “It is a new word. I made it up. I define ‘zervok’ as the thing that causes hurricanes. It is obvious that I have not answered the question at all. Any question can be answered, in a trivial way, if you are allowed to make up a new word which means “whatever the answer to the question is.” “Soul” is just a trivial way of answering the question “What causes human consciousness?”
MLU: Was it this sort of thinking that lead you toward your interest in AI? What sparked your interest in the first place?
PA: Yes, a lot of it was this sort of thinking. I was curious about how my own brain's ability to think developed, and was also interested when I heard of computers being described as “thinking machines.” I remember wondering if they could really think like me. I went through a phase of being interested in brains when I was very young. I remember when I was about 5, asking someone if a computer could think like a person -- and being told that it would not happen because it would need to be a machine the size of a town. I remember imagining this huge machine -- literally superimposed on my town -- thinking. At the same time, I had just been told it was impossible, so I was disappointed. I got my first computer at 12 and taught myself to program, like a lot of people at the time. I wondered at this stage if all these commands could really be put together to think. Could something like me work like that? Having just found out how to program I wanted to write the ultimate program, of course, and this was clearly it. Portrayals of robots and computers in science fiction interested me after this, but I think by this time I was interested in AI anyway.