Computers and the power of understanding (15 March 2016)

How computers can help us extend our individual human powers of understanding.

Using computers as sophisticated tools provides us with immense resources, but does not enhance our individual capabilities. However, communicating directly with our computers as partners – symbiosis – can extend everyone’s ability to learn, understand, master complex topics, and even be more intelligent.

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Dan Dennett

Daniel C. Dennett, the author of Breaking the Spell (Viking, 2006), Freedom Evolves (Viking Penguin, 2003) and Darwin’s Dangerous Idea (Simon & Schuster, 1995), is University Professor and Austin B. Fletcher Professor of Philosophy, and Co-Director of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University. He lives with his wife in North Andover, Massachusetts, and has a daughter, a son, and four grandchildren. He was born in Boston in 1942, the son of a historian by the same name, and received his B.A. in philosophy from Harvard in 1963. He then went to Oxford to work with Gilbert Ryle, under whose supervision he completed the D.Phil. in philosophy in 1965. He taught at U.C. Irvine from 1965 to 1971, when he moved to Tufts, where he has taught ever since, aside from periods visiting at Harvard, Pittsburgh, Oxford, the École Normale Supérieure in Paris, the London School of Economics and the American University of Beirut.

His long academic career has been devoted to interdisciplinary work on the boundaries between the sciences and the humanities, applying philosophical tools to the conceptual problems that arise when one tries to construct scientific theories and models of human minds and their activities. Working closely with leading thinkers in artificial intelligence and computer science, evolutionary biology, ethology and cognitive neuroscience, linguistics, psychology, anthropology, and philosophy, he has developed a theoretical framework that has yielded a steady stream of insights, generating hundreds of experiments in several disciplines and a host of other innovations.

Prof. Dennett gives lectures all over the world, and videos of many of them are available on line. In the 2014 academic year he gave over 40 lectures in addition to his courses at Tufts. His lecture topics include free will, consciousness, cultural evolution, models in computational neuroscience, animal minds, humor, and religion. He is currently working on a book about how human minds are the product of a cascade of semi-independent evolutionary (and quasi-evolutionary) design processes.

He was the Co-founder (in 1985) and Co-director of the Curricular Software Studio at Tufts, and has helped to design museum exhibits on computers for the Smithsonian Institution, the Museum of Science in Boston, and the Computer Museum in Boston.