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Magic vs. mechanism in our understanding of human cognition

Nobody wants to be told that they are 'predictable'.  Or do they?  Some would like to hear that they are loyal, reliable, responsible, good-natured, and fair.  All are measures of a virtuous kind of predictability.

Nobody wants to be told that their behavior is 'unpredictable', or worse, 'random'.  Or do they?  Some would like to hear that they are mysterious, inscrutable, creative, and can 'think outside the box'.  All are measures of a virtuous kind of unpredictability.

Both of these imply a relation to mechanism.  And yet, some people insist that their own mind has no mechanism, only their will.  It were as though they were invoking some kind of magic.

Artificial intelligence has come a long way since the 1950s.  Skills once limited to humans are being automated all the time, from champion chess (or Jeopardy), to searching for documents based on their content, to recognizing a face from a webcam image.  Does this automation mean that humans weren't special when they showed those skills?

The more we understand the technical basis of cognitive function, in humans and other animals, the more we will be able to produce artificial systems that can replicate these functions.  When I use the term 'cognitive function', I mean it to include all of the analog, multivariate sensorimotor coordination and control that animal nervous systems must tend to, as well as access to memory of time, place, and circumstance, and a host of other functions that advanced nervous systems display.

All of these things, and more, make humans special.  If something is special, we should figure out how it works.  Once we see how it works, we should be glad that we see it so we can maximize its value.

Do I care if my cognitive functions rely upon a mechanism?  I certainly hope that there is a mechanism underlying my cognition.  I couldn't hope to rely upon someone else's notion of "magic\.

The author's affiliation with The MITRE Corporation is provided for identification purposes only, and is not intended to convey or imply MITRE's concurrence with, or support for, the positions, opinions or viewpoints expressed by the author.

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