What is thinking?
There has been a tsunami of articles related to cognition. How does your pet think? How (or should) we build thinking machines? How can you think more effectively? How can intelligence itself be boosted? Etc.
This got me thinking about thinking, so I became involved in several social media discussions on how we should view the thinking process. Below is a short definition I’ve arrive at, one that potentially includes cognition among many animals as well as, perhaps, computing devices today and/or in the future:
Thinking is the process of assimilating sensory information, integrating it into existing internal models of reality (or creating new models derived from old ones), generating inferences about the past, future and present based on those models, and using those inferences as more input that can be assimilated into internal models via continuing feedback loops.
This is succinct but I’m sure it oversimplifies things. For example, infants are likely born with a certain amount of “hard-wiring” that allows them to interpret the world in basic ways even before they’ve developed many internal models about how the world works. Still, I’d argue that this definition gets at what we mean by thinking, whether it relates to bugs, birds, elephants or hominids.
What’s the point? Well, cognition is quickly becoming the name of the game in modern society in nearly any discipline you can name: learning, artificial intelligence, information science, bioethics, research, analytics, innovation, marketing, justice, genetics, etc.
A lot of what we will be doing in the future is trying to answer hard questions about thinking:
- What (and how) do other people (e.g., customers, employees, citizens, etc.) think?
- How can we make learning more efficient and effective?
- How can we make machines that are better at solving problems?
- How can we understand what is in the minds of criminals so that we can reduce crime and make better decisions in our justice systems?
- How should we view and treat other thinking animals on the planet?
- How do we know (or decide) when machines are thinking, and to what degree is thinking different from consciousness?
To have better discussions around these and similar questions, we’ll need to develop better and more understandable cross-disciplinary definitions of terms such as thinking, consciousness (which seems to be a kind of attention to thinking), and comprehension. A lot of progress comes from our growing ability to create thinking machines, but we also seem to be getting considerably better at understanding human cognition as well. The next couple of decades or so should be interesting.
(Note: I wrote a version of this post nearly a decade ago.)
Featured image source: Robert Fludd. From https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Robert_Fludd,Tomus_secundus…,_1619-1621_Wellcome_L0028467.jpg