Daniel Dennett
Professor of Philosophy and Co-director of the Center for Cognitive Studies, Tufts University
02:09

How People Are Like Robots

How People Are Like Robots

If you look inside each neuron in the human brain, you will find motor proteins that are a bit of mindless nano-engineering.

Daniel Dennett

Daniel C. Dennett is the author of Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking, Breaking the Spell, Freedom Evolves, and Darwin's Dangerous Idea and is University Professor and Austin B. Fletcher Professor of Philosophy, and Co-Director of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University. He lives with his wife in North Andover, Massachusetts, and has a daughter, a son, and a grandson. He was born in Boston in 1942, the son of a historian by the same name, and received his B.A. in philosophy from Harvard in 1963. He then went to Oxford to work with Gilbert Ryle, under whose supervision he completed the D.Phil. in philosophy in 1965. He taught at U.C. Irvine from 1965 to 1971, when he moved to Tufts, where he has taught ever since, aside from periods visiting at Harvard, Pittsburgh, Oxford, and the École Normale Supérieure in Paris.

His first book, Content and Consciousness, appeared in 1969, followed by Brainstorms (1978), Elbow Room (1984), The Intentional Stance (1987), Consciousness Explained (1991), Darwin's Dangerous Idea (1995), Kinds of Minds (1996), and Brainchildren: A Collection of Essays 1984-1996. Sweet Dreams: Philosophical Obstacles to a Science of Consciousness, was published in 2005. He co-edited The Mind's I with Douglas Hofstadter in 1981 and he is the author of over three hundred scholarly articles on various aspects on the mind, published in journals ranging from Artificial Intelligence and Behavioral and Brain Sciences to Poetics Today and the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism.

Dennett gave the John Locke Lectures at Oxford in 1983, the Gavin David Young Lectures at Adelaide, Australia, in 1985, and the Tanner Lecture at Michigan in 1986, among many others. He has received two Guggenheim Fellowships, a Fulbright Fellowship, and a Fellowship at the Center for Advanced Studies in Behavioral Science. He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1987.

He was the Co-founder (in 1985) and Co-director of the Curricular Software Studio at Tufts, and has helped to design museum exhibits on computers for the Smithsonian Institution, the Museum of Science in Boston, and the Computer Museum in Boston.

Transcript

Question: How are people similar to robots?

Daniel Dennett:    We’re robots, made of robots, made of robots, made of robots.  You’ve got billions, several hundred billion probably cell neurons in your brain.  Each one of those neurons is eukaryotic cell with nucleus and with mitochondria and it’s a direct descendant of free swimming, free living autonomous little single celled organisms that have been around for billions of years.

And if you look inside each neuron you find that there are motor proteins in there; little motor proteins are certainly a robot.  It’s not alive.  It’s a bit of nano-engineering that does all sorts of interesting works, it’s mindless and that’s what we’re made off. 

Now, in a way when you think about it, that way you realize how outrageously ambitious it is to make a humanoid robot that has the power of a human brain when the modeling of the individual neurons is extremely crude compared to what the brain can do.  The brain has literally trillions and trillions of moving parts.  The most elaborate robot yet conceived, and counting the chip as a collection of moving parts, doesn’t have trillions of moving parts.  It’s by orders of magnitude simpler. 

Recorded March 6, 2009.

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