From computer scientist Ursula Martin in What to Think About Machines that Think.

Reading the watery marshland is a conversation with the past, with people I know nothing about, except that they laid the stones that shape my stride, and probably shared my dislike of wet feet.

Beyond the dunes, wide sands stretch across a bay to a village beyond. The receding tide has created strangely regular repeating patterns of water and sand, which echo a line of ancient wooden posts. A few hundred years ago salmon were abundant here, and the posts supported nets to catch them. A stone church tower provides a landmark, and I stride out cross the sands toward it to reach the village, disturbing noisy groups of seabirds.

The water, stepping-stones, posts, and church tower are the texts of a slow conversation across the ages. Path makers, salmon fishers, and even solitary walkers mark the land; the weather and tides, rocks and sand and water, creatures and plants respond to those marks; and future generations in turn respond to and change what they find.


What kind of thinking machine might find its own place in slow conversations over the centuries, mediated by land and water? What qualities would such a machine need to have? Or what if the thinking machine was not replacing any individual entity but was used as a concept to help understand the combination of human, natural, and technological activities that create the sea’s margin, and our response to it?


The purpose of the solitary walker may be straightforward — to catch fish, to understand birds, or merely to get home safely before the tide comes in. But what if the purpose of the solitary walker is no more than a solitary walk — to find balance, to be at one with nature, to enrich the imagination, or to feed the soul. Now the walk becomes a conversation with the past, not directly through rocks and posts and water but through words, through the poetry of those who have experienced humanity through rocks and posts and water and found the words to pass that experience on. So the purpose of the solitary walker is to reinforce those very qualities that make the solitary walker a human being, in a shared humanity with other human beings. A challenge indeed for a thinking machine.