Can Computers Think?

May 14, 1999
Sponsored by the Bhaktivedanta Institute*

Robert E. Horn, Visiting Scholar, Center for the Study of Language and Information, Stanford
Russell McBride, Instructor in Philosophy, Alameda College

Abstract: One of the great debates of the last 50 years has been over the question Turing asked in his 1950 paper in Mind: Will computers ever be able to think? Recently, eminent computer scientist Ray Kurzweil has speculated in his book, The Age of Spiritual Machines, that computers would surpass human intelligence by 2050, that they would become conscious, and, hence even, "spiritual." "Once a computer achieves a human level of intelligence, it will necessarily roar past it," he says. The debate is important because it focuses on the fundamental question of human identity. And, as a result of these advances in computer intelligence, says Kurzweil: "The primary political and philosophical issue of the next century will be the definition of who we are." Where does that debate stand now? What does the history of that debate say about these claims? What are the criteria throughout the debate for what counts as a thinking computer? These are questions the presentation will address.

Horn and McBride have just finished developing the Mapping Great Debates: Can Computers Think? series of argumentation maps. These seven (3 x 4 foot) maps trace over 800 arguments, rebuttals, and counterrebuttals in the Turing debate by over 400 scholars worldwide. One of the seven maps is devoted to the question: Do Machines have to be Conscious in Order to Think? They have recently started another argumentation mapping project in the area of consciousness studies under one of the University of Arizona grants. Horn and McBride will reflect on the these issues from the perspective of their mapping project and identify the hot spots in the forthcoming debate.


1. Horn, R.; Yoshimi, J.; McBride, R.; Deering, M. Mapping Great Debates: Can Computers Think? Seven maps and handbook, Bainbridge, Washington, Macro VU Inc., 1998. <>

Friday, May 14, 1999
Room 300, Health Sciences West, University of California, San Francisco *
7:30 pm – 8:00 pm Social; 8:00 pm – 10:00 pm Lecture and Discussion

Registration: If you are attending for the first time, please pre-register by calling K. P. Rajan, Ph.D. at (510) 841-7618, or Jean Burns, Ph.D., at (510) 481-7507 (e-mail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.).

Directions: The closest parking is the UCSF public garage at 500 Parnassus Avenue ($1.75/hr). You may be able to find some free street parking within a few blocks of the campus. We post directions to reach Health Sciences West building in the lobby of the Medical Sciences building (513 Parnassus), across the street from the UCSF garage.

* The Bhaktivedanta Institute and UCSF are not affiliated. The use of meeting rooms at the University of California, San Francisco, by non-profit organizations does not imply that the University endorses this organization or the material being presented.