Artificial Intelligence Over the Next Four Score and Seven Years

Stephen DeAngelis

March 12, 2014

“The advances we’ve seen in the past few years — cars that drive themselves, useful humanoid robots, speech recognition and synthesis systems, 3D printers, Jeopardy!-champion computers — are not the crowning achievements of the computer era,” write Erik Bryn Jolfsson and Andrew McAfee. “They’re the warm-up acts. As we move deeper into the second machine age we’ll see more and more such wonders, and they’ll become more and more impressive.” [“The Dawn of the Age of Artificial Intelligence,” The Atlantic, 14 February 2014] So what’s the timing for ushering in this “second machine age”? Dick Pelletier predicts the world will see its first non-biological brain by mid-century — that is, a hybrid brain enhanced by artificial neurons. “As wild as this idea seems,” he writes, “within 40 years, neurons made from nanomaterials could enable humans to survive even the most horrendous accident, and as a bonus, acquire some remarkable new abilities.” [“Non-biological brains could become reality by the 2050s,” Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies (IEET), 16 December 2013] By the end of the century, Tia Ghose predicts that artificial intelligence systems will be smarter than humans. She notes that others believe this will happen much faster. “Some even think the singularity — the point at which artificial intelligence can match, and then overtake, human smarts — might happen in just 16 years,” she writes. [“Intelligent Robots Will Overtake Humans by 2100,” Discovery, 8 May 2013]

That may all sound pretty straight forward, but the fact of the matter is there remains a debate about what the term artificial intelligence really means. Douglas Hofstadter, a cognitive scientist at Indiana University and a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, claims, for example, that IBM’s Watson computer system and Apple’s Siri personal assistant aren’t “real” artificial intelligence. In an interview with William Herkewitz, he admitted, “Artificial intelligence is a slippery term.” [“Why Watson and Siri Are Not Real AI,” Popular Mechanics, 10 February 2014] He explains:

“[Artificial Intelligence] could refer to just getting machines to do things that seem intelligent on the surface, such as playing chess well or translating from one language to another on a superficial level — things that are impressive if you don’t look at the details. In that sense, we’ve already created what some people call artificial intelligence. But if you mean a machine that has real intelligence, that is thinking — that’s inaccurate. Watson is basically a text search algorithm connected to a database just like Google search. It doesn’t understand what it’s reading. In fact, read is the wrong word. It’s not reading anything because it’s not comprehending anything. Watson is finding text without having a clue as to what the text means. In that sense, there’s no intelligence there. It’s clever, it’s impressive, but it’s absolutely vacuous.”

On the other hand, Miles Brundage and Joanna Bryson beg to differ with Hofstadter. Following the publication of his interview in Popular Mechanics, they responded, “Artificial intelligence is here now. This doesn’t mean that Cylons disguised as humans have infiltrated our societies, or that the processors behind one of the search engines have become sentient and are now making their own plans for world domination. But denying the presence of AI in our society not only takes away from the achievements of science and commerce, but also runs the risk of complacency in a world where more and more of our actions and intentions are being analyzed and influenced by intelligent machines.” [“Why Watson Is Real Artificial Intelligence,” Future Tense, 14 February 2014] Responding to Hofstadter’s specific allegations, they write:

“First, although Watson includes many forms of text search, it is first and foremost a system capable of responding appropriately in real-time to new inputs. It competed against humans to ring the buzzer first, and Watson couldn’t ring the buzzer until it was confident it had constructed the right sentence. And, in fact, the humans quite often beat Watson to the buzzer even when Watson was on the right track. Watson works by choosing candidate responses, then devoting its processors to several of them at the same time, exploring archived material for further evidence of the quality of the answer. Candidates can be discarded and new ones selected. IBM is currently applying this general question-answering approach to real-world domains like health care and retail. This is very much how primate brains (like ours) work.”

So who’s correct? In a sense, they all are. Watson, and most other cognitive computing systems including Enterra Solutions® Cognitive Reasoning Platform™, don’t possess artificial general intelligence. That is, they are not sentient in any sense of that word. That’s really Hofstadter’s main point. Nevertheless, such systems do perform activities that require them to sense, think, act, and learn. To learn more about what so-called narrow or weak AI systems are up to, read my post entitled “Cognitive Computing and Human/Computer Interactions.” Jolfsson and McAfee appear to accept the notion that narrow AI systems can change the world. They explain:

“How can we be so sure? Because the exponential, digital, and recombinant powers of the second machine age have made it possible for humanity to create two of the most important one-time events in our history: the emergence of real, useful artificial intelligence (AI) and the connection of most of the people on the planet via a common digital network. Either of these advances alone would fundamentally change our growth prospects. When combined, they’re more important than anything since the Industrial Revolution, which forever transformed how physical work was done.”

Hofstadter probably wouldn’t argue with that line of thinking. He would probably argue, however, that “useful artificial intelligence” isn’t real artificial intelligence in the general sense of that term. When asked what it will take to advance artificial general intelligence, Hofstadter stated, “I think you have to move toward much more fundamental science, and dive into the nature of what thinking is. What is understanding? How do we make links between things that are, on the surface, fantastically different from one another? In that mystery is the miracle of human thought.” That’s also why many pundits believe it will be at least four score and seven years before an artificial general intelligence system is created. In the meantime, Jolfsson and McAfee believe that marvelous things will be accomplished. They conclude:

“We believe that this development [i.e., the emergence of the second machine age] will boost human progress. We can’t predict exactly what new insights, products, and solutions will arrive in the coming years, but we are fully confident that they’ll be impressive. The second machine age will be characterized by countless instances of machine intelligence and billions of interconnected brains working together to better understand and improve our world. It will make mockery out of all that came before.”

I would never use the term mockery when referring to advances in knowledge made by our predecessors. I agree with Bernard of Chartres, who is credited with saying, “We are like dwarves perched on the shoulders of giants, and thus we are able to see more and farther than the latter. And this is not at all because of the acuteness of our sight or the stature of our body, but because we are carried aloft and elevated by the magnitude of the giants.” As we know, Sir Isaac Newton echoed those sentiments. We owe a great debt to the giants of the past and our achievements will never mock theirs; rather, our accomplishments will honor the achievements of the past by building on them. I do agree with Jolfsson and McAfee that next four score and seven years will be exciting ones in which to live.