Experts – a second opinion


Sir, – Contrary to what Cormac O’Raifeartaigh fears (October 12th) or what Joe Humphreys may have implied (“How does anyone become an expert on anything?”, Unthinkable, October 10th), the British sociologist Harry Collins has never claimed to be an expert on the physics of gravitational waves. In fact, in his study of gravitation wave physicists, he was developing a subtle and interesting theory about the nature of perceived expertise and artificial intelligence. The key word in Prof Collins’s description is “indistinguishable”.

I was present at a lecture given by Prof Collins on this topic in Trinity College about 15 years ago in which he described his work. What he said was that, after many years of working closely with experts in the field of gravitational waves, he had developed an ability to answer non-mathematical questions about the subject, even though most of the time he did not understand the meaning of his answers. He had carried out a simple experiment to prove that, in a blind question-and-answer session, other scientists were unable to determine whether he or a real expert was the genuine article.

This finding provides support for John Searle’s claims about silicon-based artificial intelligence as expressed in his famous Chinese Room problem. Prof Searle argues that it is possible for a machine to appear intelligent and even conscious without it having any true awareness. Prof Searle’s views are much debated, but Prof Collins’s work provides empirical evidence for its validity. – Yours, etc,


Dublin 4.