Ray Kurzweil is working at Google to develop technologies (such as robots) that can read the web. It has long been a stated goal of Google that the company not just index all of the world’s information, but that they also be able to read it. If they succeed, the result will be an immense step forward in AI (artificial intelligence) research.
I have serious doubts that this can be done, and I am a technophobe who is generally optimistic regarding tech trends. For examples of serious philosophical arguments against the achievement of Kurzweil’s dream, see the very informative article by Colin McGinn in The New York Review of Books.
For a simplified analysis of why I think Kurzweil is full of it, consider the short story article I recently posted, entitled Short Story: The Creation. At first skimming you might think the article is worth a chuckle (or not), even though it might not set off any philosophical questioning within your tired brain, which is also thinking about what you have to do next. Then, you glance back at the article and you notice that it mentions two timeless and all-knowing gods “figuring out” how to have sex “even without bodies and even in the absence of space and time.” And you say “Hm, how can a timeless being figure something out, given that the act of figuring is an act that requires time, by definition, and it also results in a change in knowledge.” Given this, and making the assumption that the author realized he was abusing the concepts of timelessness and omniscience, you would infer that the author was being satirical. You would then note several similar satirical pieces and conclude that the author was either making fun of, or at least highlighting, the inability of humans to grasp concepts that we cannot picture in space and time.
Now, could a robot be programmed to read through the article and come up with the same conclusions? Would it set the robot on a course of trying to figure out broader meanings, such as how intentionality, cause, and manifestation are related when one is beyond time? Would it wonder whether mathematics really existed before creation, or whether it is a human invention? Would it wonder what physical laws really are, and how are they “policed” and how are the computations carried out by nature when it is following a law such as F = ma?
Programming pattern recognition that can work through the “endless” variations on semantics, determine when there is satire, or falsehood, or a trace of warmth from the author’s choice of prose, determining the actual meaning of what it is being read, may be possible, at some point. Never say never, right?
Sure seems unlikely to me, though.
Update: On the other hand, there does seem to be a lot of progress in this area.