Artificial Stupidity

by Ali Minai

"My colleagues, they study artificial intelligence; me, I study natural stupidity." —Amos Tversky, (quoted in “The Undoing Project” by Michael Lewis).

Humans-vs-AINot only is this quote by Tversky amusing, it also offers profound insight into the nature of intelligence – real and artificial. Most of us working on artificial intelligence (AI) take it for granted that the goal is to build machines that can reason better, integrate more data, and make more rational decisions. What the work of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky shows is that this is not how people (and other animals) function. If the goal in artificial intelligence is to replicate human capabilities, it may be impossible to build intelligent machines without "natural stupidity". Unfortunately, this is something that the burgeoning field of AI has almost completely lost sight of, with the result that AI is in danger of repeating the same mistakes in the matter of building intelligent machines as classical economists have made in their understanding of human behavior. If this does not change, homo artificialis may well end up being about as realistic as homo economicus.

The work of Tversky and Kahneman focused on showing systematically that much of intelligence is not rational. People don’t make all decisions and inferences by mathematically or logically correct calculation. Rather, they are made based on rules of thumb – or heuristics – driven not by analysis but by values grounded in instinct, intuition and emotion: Kludgy short-cuts that are often “wrong” or sub-optimal, but usually “good enough”. The question is why this should be the case, and whether it is a “bug” or a “feature”. As with everything else about living systems, Dobzhansky’s brilliant insight provides the answer: This too makes sense only in the light of evolution.

The field of AI began with the conceit that, ultimately, everything is computation, and that reproducing intelligence – even life itself – was only a matter of finding the “correct” algorithms. As six decades of relative failure have demonstrated, this hypothesis may be true in an abstract formal sense, but is insufficient to support a practical path to truly general AI. To elaborate Feynman, Nature’s imagination has turned out to be much greater than that of professors and their graduate students. The antidote to this algorithm-centered view of AI comes from the notion of embodiment, which sees mental phenomena – including intelligence and behavior – as emerging from the physical structures and processes of the animal, much as rotation emerges from a pinwheel when it faces a breeze. From this viewpoint, the algorithms of intelligence are better seen, not as abstract procedures, but as concrete dynamical responses inherent in the way the structures of the organism – from the level of muscles and joints down to molecules – interact with the environment in which they are embedded.

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Fearing Artificial Intelligence

by Ali Minai

ScreenHunter_1341 Aug. 31 10.48Artificial Intelligence is on everyone's mind. The message from a whole panel of luminaries – Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk, Bill Gates, Apple founder Steve Wozniak, Lord Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal of Britain and former President of the Royal Society, and many others – is clear: Be afraid! Be very afraid! To a public already immersed in the culture of Star Wars, Terminator, the Matrix and the Marvel universe, this message might sound less like an expression of possible scientific concern and more a warning of looming apocalypse. It plays into every stereotype of the mad scientist, the evil corporation, the surveillance state, drone armies, robot overlords and world-controlling computers a la Skynet. Who knows what “they” have been cooking up in their labs? Asimov's three laws of robotics are being discussed in the august pages of Nature, which has also recently published a multi-piece report on machine intelligence. In the same issue, four eminent experts discuss the ethics of AI. Some of this is clearly being driven by reports such as the latest one from Google's DeepMind, claiming that their DQN system has achieved “human-level intelligence”, or that a robot called Eugene had “passed the Turing Test“. Another legitimate source of anxiety is the imminent possibility of lethal autonomous weapon systems (LAWS) that will make life-and-death decisions without human intervention. This has led recently to the circulation of an open letter expressing concern about such weapons, and it has been signed by hundreds of other scientists, engineers and innovators, including Musk, Hawking and Gates. Why is this happening now? What are the factors driving this rather sudden outbreak of anxiety?

Looking at the critics' own pronouncements, there seem to be two distinct levels of concern. The first arises from rapid recent progress in the automation of intelligent tasks, including many involving life-or-death decisions. This issue can be divided further into two sub-problems: The socioeconomic concern that computers will take away all the jobs that humans do, including the ones that require intelligence; and the moral dilemma posed by intelligent machines making life-or-death decisions without human involvement or accountability. These are concerns that must be faced in the relatively near term – over the next decade or two.

The second level of concern that features prominently in the pronouncements of Hawking, Musk, Wozniak, Rees and others is the existential risk that truly intelligent machines will take over the world and destroy or enslave humanity. This threat, for all its dark fascination, is still a distant one, though perhaps not as distant as we might like.

In this article, I will consider these two cases separately.

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Cerebral Imperialism

Neurons The present is where the future comes to die, or more accurately, where an infinite array of possible futures all collapse into one. We live in a present where artificial intelligence hasn't been invented, despite a quarter century of optimistic predictions. John Horgan in Scientific American suggests we're a long way from developing it, despite all the optimistic predictions (although when it does come it may well be as a sudden leap into existence, a sudden achievement of critical mass). However and whenever (or if ever) it arrives, it's an idea worth discussing today. But, a question: Does this line of research suffer from “cerebral imperialism”?


The idea of “cerebral imperialism” came up in an interview I did for the current issue of Tricycle, a Buddhist magazine, with transhumanist professor and writer James “J” Hughes. One exchange went like this:

Eskow: There seems to be a kind of cognitive imperialism among some Transhumanists that says the intellect alone is “self.” Doesn’t saying “mind” is who we are exclude elements like body, emotion, culture, and our environment? Buddhism and neuroscience both suggest that identity is a process in which many elements co-arise to create the individual experience on a moment-by-moment basis. The Transhumanists seem to say, “I am separate, like a data capsule that can be uploaded or moved here and there.”

You’re right. A lot of our Transhumanist subculture comes out of computer science— male computer science—so a lot of them have that traditional “intelligence is everything” view. s soon as you start thinking about the ability to embed a couple of million trillion nanobots in your brain and back up your personality and memory onto a chip, or about advanced artificial intelligence deeply wedded with your own mind, or sharing your thoughts and dreams and feelings with other people, you begin to see the breakdown of the notion of discrete and continuous self.

An intriguing answer – one of many Hughes offers in the interview – but I was going somewhere else: toward the idea that cognition itself, that thing which we consider “mind,” is over-emphasized in our definition of self and therefore is projected onto our efforts to create something we call “artificial intelligence.”

Is the “society of mind” trying to colonize the societies of body and emotion?

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