It was never supposed [the poet Imlac said] that cogitation is inherent in matter, or that every particle is a thinking being. Yet if any part of matter be devoid of thought, what part can we suppose to think? Matter can differ from matter only in form, density, bulk, motion, and direction of motion. To which of these, however varied or combined, can consciousness be annexed? To be round or square, to be solid or fluid, to be great or little, to be moved slowly or swiftly, one way or another, are modes of material existence all equally alien from the nature of cogitation. If matter be once without thought, it can only be made to think by some new modification; but all the modifications which it can admit are equally unconnected with cogitative powers. —Samuel Johnson
How could solid-seeming brains support such ghostly things as thoughts? This question troubled many thinkers of the past. The world of thoughts and the world of things appeared to be too far apart to interact in any way. So long as thoughts seemed so utterly different from everything else, there seemed to be no place to start.
A few centuries ago it seemed equally impossible to explain Life, because living things appeared to be so different from anything else. Plants seemed to grow from nothing. Animals could move and learn. Both could reproduce themselves — while nothing else could do such things. But then that awesome gap began to close. Every living thing was found to be composed of smaller cells, and cells turned out to be composed of complex but comprehensible chemicals. Soon it was found that plants did not create any substance at all but simply extracted most of their material from gases in the air. Mysteriously pulsing hearts turned out to be no more than mechanical pumps, composed of networks of muscle cells. But it was not until the present century that John von Neumann showed theoretically how cell-machines could reproduce while, almost independently, James Watson and Francis Crick discovered how each cell actually makes copies of its own hereditary code. No longer does an educated person have to seek any special, vital force to animate each living thing.
Similarly, a century ago, we had essentially no way to start to explain how thinking works. Then psychologists like Sigmund Freud and Jean Piaget produced their theories about child development. Somewhat later, on the mechanical side, mathematicians like Kurt Gödel and Alan Turing began to reveal the hitherto unknown range of what machines could be made to do. These two streams of thought began to merge only in the 1940s, when Warren McCulloch and Walter Pitts began to show how machines might be made to see, reason, and remember. Research in the modern science of Artificial Intelligence started only in the 1950s, stimulated by the invention of modern computers. This inspired a flood of new ideas about how machines could do what only minds had done previously.
Most people still believe that no machine could ever be conscious, or feel ambition, jealousy, humor, or have any other mental life-experience. To be sure, we are still far from being able to create machines that do all the things people do. But this only means that we need better theories about how thinking works. This book will show how the tiny machines that we'll call agents of the mind could be the long sought particles that those theories need.