In the late 1700s, French scientist Antoine Lavoisier proved that the mechanism behind burning is oxidation. Lavoisier’s discovery killed off an eternity of dogma involving a non-existent substance called phlogiston. The facts spoke for Lavoisier, but phlogiston did not go quietly or quickly.
I find myself in a kind-of modern version of the phlogiston story with my research into artificial general intelligence. I swim against the tide of the received view – that is, a position that is taken for granted without apparent need for criticism.
Allow me to set the scene with a story.
It’s 100,000 BCE. Your dinner is the cooling dead thing at your feet. You have fire back at camp. You have no clue what fire is, but you know it makes food edible.
It’s the early 20th century and you are one of the Wright brothers. Inspired by birds, you think you can make a contraption fly. You experiment with shapes in a makeshift wind tunnel and find that certain shapes drag less and lift more. Eventually you fly a few feet.
A hundred years later, you are a trainee pilot doing touch-and-go landings in a simulator. A physics model of flight is in the computers running the simulator. Just for fun you stall your jetliner over a shopping mall.
As you leave the simulator, having flown 16,384 km and gone nowhere, you remind yourself that flight and the computed physics of flight are not the same thing and that, thankfully, no shoppers died when a plane crashed through the mall.
No-one needed or assumed a theory of combustion prior to cooking dinner with it. We cooked dinner and then we eventually developed a theory of combustion.