It Is Nearly Unthinkable That ‘I Think, Therefore I Am’ Applies To AI, Possibly Even Self-Driving Cars

Debora Carley

I think, therefore I am, and what about AI. Getty Images You have undoubtedly heard the famous phrase “I think, therefore I am.” Written oftentimes in its Latin form, the saying is known as ergo cogito, ergo sum. If you want to be smarmy and impress your friends, please be […]

You have undoubtedly heard the famous phrase “I think, therefore I am.”

Written oftentimes in its Latin form, the saying is known as ergo cogito, ergo sum.

If you want to be smarmy and impress your friends, please be aware that Rene Descartes in 1637 had originally set forth the phrase in his French treatise Discourse on the Method and the words were shown as “je pense, donc je suis.”

Make sure that when you opt to brandish this arcane fact over the snippety noses of your pals that you get the French pronunciation nailed down beforehand, otherwise your attempt to look extra smart will be undermined when they ding you for mispronouncing the French version.

There is an important added twist that you ought to also know.

The now-ubiquitous phrase leaves out an important part, without which the saying is not quite the same as what Descartes originally intended.

Turns out that a twitter-like reduction in the number of allowed characters has inadvertently caused his intended meaning to become shortchanged.

Here is the English translated passage that contains the famous embedded quote:

“I supposed that all the objects (presentations) that had ever entered into my mind when awake, had in them no more truth than the illusions of my dreams. But immediately upon this I observed that, whilst I thus wished to think that all was false, it was absolutely necessary that I, who thus thought, should be something; And as I observed that this truth, I think, therefore I am, was so certain and of such evidence that no ground of doubt, however extravagant, could be alleged by the Sceptics capable of shaking it, I concluded that I might, without scruple, accept it as the first principle of the philosophy of which I was in search.”

Okay, so what does that exactly showcase?

It is interpreted by many philosophers as an indication that Descartes was asserting that his real-world existence is affirmed as a consequence of being able to doubt that he did actually exist as a real-world entity.

Huh, you might say, somewhat puzzled by the seeming enigma.

The fact that he was able to doubt that he existed was sufficient proof that he does exist.

One might say that if he did not doubt that he existed, this would suggest that he might not exist and that in this non-existence there was no willingness and no attempt to question whether he exists or not. You see, failing to question your existence is tantamount to not seeking the truth of whether you exist, and as such, the way to establishing your existence is by challenging the veracity of the existence claim.

I realize that the passage is open to all kinds of other interpretations, but the infusion of this vaunted doubtfulness ingredient is generally considered essential by many that have closely studied his entire collection of work (not everyone agrees, thus, you’ll need to make your private peace with the matter).

As a result of the viewpoint, that doubt was such a key factor, the fuller tweaked version of his intended saying is typically couched in Latin as dubito, ergo cogito, ergo sum and then indicated in English as this final revisionist proclamation:

·        “I doubt, therefore I think, therefore I am.”

Some recoil at this modified variant and believe that the beauty and poetry of his original words have been completely usurped and torn asunder. Meanwhile, others contend that the longer version is more fitting, and the shortened version is nothing less than an out-of-context sham.

I hope that you are not shaken by the rancorous debate and discourse underlying something that you probably thought was a straightforward and settled matter.

Let’s consider how the added element makes quite a difference.

The shorter version seems to suggest that by the mere act alone of thinking, one must therefore exist.

There is copious purity that “I think, therefore I am” is short and sweet, allowing any of us to contentedly utter the phrase with parsimonious satisfaction.

The longer version though is said to add a vital preamble, during which you must first express doubt, a kind of doubt that presumably underlies your existence, and once you’ve crossed that bridge, you can assert that this establishes that you can think, and finally you can proceed to put the proverbial icing on the cake by claiming that due to those propounding propositions you must indeed exist.

That’s a lot of insidious if’s and contortions, way beyond the realm of being easily wielded and readily flaunted in any everyday conversation over coffee or tea.

Charles Porterfield Krauth, a historically notable theologian, perhaps summed it up rather well in 1872 by wording the matter this way:  “That cannot doubt which does not think, and that cannot think which does not exist. I doubt, I think, I exist.”

Returning to the desire to be a know-it-all with your colleagues, the more advanced and rather torturous approach to impress your friends would be to first ask them if they have any doubts about their existence.

Assuming that they say yes, you can share with them that as a result of their willfully admitting such doubt, it proves that they can think.

And, since they have now proven that they can think, they are in fact in existence, and by these brazen rules are undeniably a certified card-carrying “am” (based irreducibly on “I doubt, therefore I think, therefore I am”).

This brings up a popular joke that generates much glee and uncontrollable laughter among impassioned philosophers:

Rene Descartes walks into a bar. The bartender asks Descartes if he would like his normal drink. In response, Descartes says “I think not.” Instantaneously, Descartes disappears.


He admitted straight out that he does not think (well, sort of), and thusly if he does not think, he must not exist, and by not existing he wouldn’t be in the bar, and as a result miraculously disappears.

There are lots of ingenious and at times devilish ways to play around with this lofty topic.

For example, some try to contend that by simply stopping their mind from thinking, they will cease to exist, similar to the joke about Descartes. A small problem with that theory is that perhaps your mind is always “thinking,” including when you are sleeping and even when you go into a mind-numbing state of meditation and believe that you have emptied all your thoughts. Your mind is potentially the engine that will not stop.

Of course, upon death, your mind does seem to decidedly come to a stop, which by the way there is a great deal of interesting research on how long the brain sometimes keeps going even though the rest of your body might be considered legally dead. You might be queasy on this line of research and consider the question to be rather gruesome, but it does have fascinating implications and tickles our innate curiosity about how the brain works.

Let’s shift gears on this topic.

There is a multi-billion dollar-sized worldwide effort underway to craft AI-based true self-driving cars. Here is an intriguing question: Will AI-based true self-driving cars be able to think and if so then are they in existence in the same “am” manner as us, everyday humans?

Let’s unpack the matter and see.

Understanding The Levels Of Self-Driving Cars

As a clarification, true self-driving cars are ones that the AI drives the car entirely on its own and there isn’t any human assistance during the driving task.

These driverless vehicles are considered a Level 4 and Level 5 (see my explanation at this link here), while a car that requires a human driver to co-share the driving effort is usually considered at a Level 2 or Level 3. The cars that co-share the driving task are described as being semi-autonomous, and typically contain a variety of automated add-on’s that are referred to as ADAS (Advanced Driver-Assistance Systems).

There is not yet a true self-driving car at Level 5, which we don’t yet even know if this will be possible to achieve, and nor how long it will take to get there.

Meanwhile, the Level 4 efforts are gradually trying to get some traction by undergoing very narrow and selective public roadway trials, though there is controversy over whether this testing should be allowed per se (we are all life-or-death guinea pigs in an experiment taking place on our highways and byways, some point out, see my indication at this link here).

Since semi-autonomous cars require a human driver, the adoption of those types of cars won’t be markedly different than driving conventional vehicles, so there’s not much new per se to cover about them on this topic (though, as you’ll see in a moment, the points next made are generally applicable).

For semi-autonomous cars, it is important that the public needs to be forewarned about a disturbing aspect that’s been arising lately, namely that despite those human drivers that keep posting videos of themselves falling asleep at the wheel of a Level 2 or Level 3 car, we all need to avoid being misled into believing that the driver can take away their attention from the driving task while driving a semi-autonomous car.

You are the responsible party for the driving actions of the vehicle, regardless of how much automation might be tossed into a Level 2 or Level 3.

Self-Driving Cars And Whether AI Is Am

For Level 4 and Level 5 true self-driving vehicles, there won’t be a human driver involved in the driving task.

All occupants will be passengers.

The AI is doing the driving.

Let’s first focus on the AI side of things, notwithstanding the car aspects, which we’ll loop back into.

Despite the hype about AI, there isn’t any AI yet that is sentient. We are not even in the ballpark of sentience. Some firmly believe that there will be a moment of singularity that suddenly and perhaps unexpectedly causes AI to spring forth vigorously by begetting intelligence with more intelligence (see my comments on this contested topic at this link), ultimately arising into becoming sentient. Do not hold your breath for that to happen.

Okay, if you accept that premise, it means that if we are going to discuss and debate the topic of “I think, therefore I am” in the context of AI then we will, for now, need to do so without looming sentience peeking around the corner (it might someday appear, long from now).

This also brings up an underlying conundrum, namely, does the act of thinking require sentience?

If thinking does not require sentience, you might be on the somewhat less shaky ground to assert that AI, as we can conceive of it, might achieve thinking, in some closer time frame, perhaps via the route of crafting massively scaled Artificial Neural Networks (ANN) making use of Machine Learning (ML) and Deep Learning (DL) techniques and technologies. Optimists might argue that upon such a machine being able to essentially simulate a human brain, sentience will naturally arise, doing so without necessarily a mankind created capability and more so as a synergistic effect that we did not directly divine.

In any case, suppose that we did get this thinking style AI to pass a Turing Test, a type of testing process named for its author the famous mathematician Alan Turing, which consists of pitting the AI against a human in a series of intellectual challenges, and the result was that we could not discern any difference between the two (see my detailed explanation at this link here). The AI would then be considered the equivalent of exhibiting human intelligence, in whatever way we managed to achieve it, whether by clever computational means or by lots of toy Lego’s and a bunch of duct tape.

Get ready for the plot twist.

Would that AI, the stuff that has passed the Turing Test, qualify to become known as an “am” in the semblance of the venerated “I think, therefore I am” context?

Well, of course, some contend, it must since we have agreed that the AI can think, and by the act of thinking it exists in the meaning of “am” that the Descartes rule seems to imply. While you ponder that mind-bender, perhaps we ought to resurrect the question of doubt. Recall, the presumed full Descartes rule is “I doubt, therefore I think, therefore I am.”

Maybe we found a loophole about the AI being an “am” since it might be that if it doesn’t express any doubts about its existence, it cannot be said to be thinking, and though it might exist as a thing, we can toss it into the classification of those entities that are not an “am” per se. The AI is pretty much doing this: “I do not doubt, therefore I do not think, and I, therefore, am not an am.”

Somehow, that logic seems doubtful, if you know what I mean.


An AI-based true self-driving car comes down your street.

Is that car realistically “thinking” or is it just some very tricked-out computer programming?

Some believe that we will not achieve Level 5 self-driving cars unless we can make AI that truly thinks. Others contend that requiring the act of thinking is an extraordinarily high bar, higher than required for the act of driving.

Maybe we will end-up with AI that is characterized this way: “I think, therefore I am not.” Or, for clarity: “I think, but not the way you do, apparently, so I guess that I am a not.”

One thing that we might have learned from Descartes is that if the AI begins to doubt its existence, we ought to realize the gig is up, and either run for the hills or extend a hand in friendship to our newest member of the “I am” club.

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