In Our Own Image (2015), the artificial intelligence expert George Zarkadakis describes six different metaphors people have employed over the past 2,000 years to try to explain human intelligence.
1. That spirit ‘explained’ our intelligence – grammatically, at least.
2. hydraulic model of human intelligence, the idea that the flow of different fluids in the body – the ‘humours’ – accounted for both our physical and mental functioning.
3. automata powered by springs and gears had been devised, eventually inspiring leading thinkers such as René Descartes to assert that humans are complex machines.
In the 1600s, the British philosopher Thomas Hobbes suggested that thinking arose from small mechanical motions in the brain.
4. By the 1700s, discoveries about electricity and chemistry led to new theories of human intelligence – again, largely metaphorical in nature. In the mid-1800s, inspired by recent advances in communications, the German physicist Hermann von Helmholtz compared the brain to a telegraph.
5. The mathematician John von Neumann stated flatly that the function of the human nervous system is ‘prima facie digital’, drawing parallel after parallel between the components of the computing machines of the day and the components of the human brain