Artificial… what, exactly?

OK, time for part 3 of what I’m pretty sure will finish off as 4 posts on the subject of artificial intelligence. This time, I’m going to branch off-topic very slightly- rather than just focusing on AI itself, I am going to look at a fundamental question that the hunt for it raises: the nature of intelligence itself.

We all know that we are intelligent beings, and thus the search for AI has always been focused on attempting to emulate (or possibly better) the human mind and our human understanding of intelligence. Indeed, when Alan Turing first proposed the Turing test (see Monday’s post for what this entails), he was specifically trying to emulate human conversational and interaction skills. However, as mentioned in my last post, the modern-day approach to creating intelligence is to try and let robots learn for themselves, in order to minimise the amount of programming we have to give them ourselves and thus to come close to artificial, rather than programmed, intelligence. However, this learning process has raised an intriguing question- if we let robots learn for themselves entirely from base principles, could they begin to create entirely new forms of intelligence?

It’s an interesting idea, and one that leads us to question what, on a base level, intelligence is. When one thinks about it, we begin to realise the vast scope of ideas that ‘intelligence’ covers, and this is speaking merely from the human perspective. From emotional intelligence to sporting intelligence, from creative genius to pure mathematical ability (where computers themselves excel far beyond the scope of any human), intelligence is an almost pointlessly broad term.

And then, of course, we can question exactly what we mean by a form of intelligence. Take bees for example- on its own, a bee is a fairly useless creature that is most likely to just buzz around a little. Not only is it useless, but it is also very, very dumb. However, a hive, where bees are not individuals but a collective, is a very different matter- the coordinated movements of hundreds and thousands of bees can not only form huge nests and turn sugar into the liquid deliciousness that is honey, but can also defend the nest from attack, ensure the survival of the queen at all costs, and ensure that there is always someone to deal with the newborns despite the constant activity of the environment surround it. Many corporate or otherwise collective structures can claim to work similarly, but few are as efficient or versatile as a beehive- and more astonishingly, bees can exhibit an extraordinary range of intelligent behaviour as a collective beyond what an individual could even comprehend. Bees are the archetype of a collective, rather than individual, mind, and nobody is entirely sure how such a structure is able to function as it does.

Clearly, then, we cannot hope to pigeonhole or quantify intelligence as a single measurement- people may boast of their IQ scores, but this cannot hope to represent their intelligence across the full spectrum. Now, consider all these different aspects of intelligence, all the myriad of ways that we can be intelligent (or not). And ask yourself- now, have we covered all of them?

It’s another compelling idea- that there are some forms of intelligence out there that our human forms and brains simply can’t envisage, let alone experience. What these may be like… well how the hell should I know, I just said we can’t envisage them. This idea that we simply won’t be able to understand what they could be like if we ever experience can be a tricky one to get past (a similar problem is found in quantum physics, whose violation of common logic takes some getting used to), and it is a real issue that if we do ever encounter these ‘alien’ forms of intelligence, we won’t be able to recognise them for this very reason. However, if we are able to do so, it could fundamentally change our understanding of the world around us.

And, to drag this post kicking and screaming back on topic, our current development of AI could be a mine of potential to do this in (albeit a mine in which we don’t know what we’re going to find, or if there is anything to find at all). We all know that computers are fundamentally different from us in a lot of ways, and in fact it is very easy to argue that trying to force a computer to be intelligent beyond its typical, logical parameters is rather a stupid task, akin to trying to use a hatchback to tow a lorry. In fact, quite a good way to think of computers or robots is like animals, only adapted to a different environment to us- one in which their food comes via a plug and information comes to them via raw data and numbers… but I am wandering off-topic once again. The point is that computers have, for as long as the hunt for AI has gone on, been our vehicle for attempting to reach it- and only now are we beginning to fully understand that they have the potential to do so much more than just copy our minds. By pushing them onward and onward to the point they have currently reached, we are starting to turn them not into an artificial version of ourselves, but into an entirely new concept, an entirely new, man-made being.

To me, this is an example of true ingenuity and skill on behalf of the human race. Copying ourselves is no more inventive, on a base level, than making iPod clones or the like. Inventing a new, artificial species… like it or loath it, that’s amazing.

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The Chinese Room

Today marks the start of another attempt at a multi-part set of posts- the last lot were about economics (a subject I know nothing about), and this one will be about computers (a subject I know none of the details about). Specifically, over the next… however long it takes, I will be taking a look at the subject of artificial intelligence- AI.

There have been a long series of documentaries on the subject of robots, supercomputers and artificial intelligence in recent years, because it is a subject which seems to be in the paradoxical state of continually advancing at a frenetic rate, and simultaneously finding itself getting further and further away from the dream of ‘true’ artificial intelligence which, as we begin to understand more and more about psychology, neuroscience and robotics, becomes steadily more complicated and difficult to obtain. I could spend a thousand posts on the subject of all the details if I so wished, because it is also one of the fastest-developing regions of engineering on the planet, but that would just bore me and be increasingly repetitive for anyone who ends up reading this blog.

I want to begin, therefore, by asking a few questions about the very nature of artificial intelligence, and indeed the subject of intelligence itself, beginning with a philosophical problem that, when I heard about it on TV a few nights ago, was very intriguing to me- the Chinese Room.

Imagine a room containing only a table, a chair, a pen, a heap of paper slips, and a large book. The door to the room has a small opening in it, rather like a letterbox, allowing messages to be passed in or out. The book contains a long list of phrases written in Chinese, and (below them) the appropriate responses (also in Chinese characters). Imagine we take a non-Chinese speaker, and place him inside the room, and then take a fluent Chinese speaker and put them outside. They write a phrase or question (in Chinese) on some paper, and pass it through the letterbox to the other person inside the room. They have no idea what this message means, but by using the book they can identify the phrase, write the appropriate response to it, and pass it back through the letterbox. This process can be repeated multiple times, until a conversation begins to flow- the difference being that only one of the participants in the conversation actually knows what it’s about.

This experiment is a direct challenge to the somewhat crude test first proposed by mathematical genius and codebreaker Alan Turing in the 1940’s, to test whether a computer could be considered a truly intelligent being. The Turing test postulates that if a computer were ever able to conduct a conversation with a human so well that the human in question would have no idea that they were not talking to another human, but rather to a machine, then it could be considered to be intelligent.

The Chinese Room problem questions this idea, and as it does so, raises a fundamental question about whether a machine such as a computer can ever truly be called intelligent, or to possess intelligence. The point of the idea is to demonstrate that it is perfectly possible to appear to be intelligent, by conducting a normal conversation with someone, whilst simultaneously having no understanding whatsoever of the situation at hand. Thus, while a machine programmed with the correct response to any eventuality could converse completely naturally, and appear perfectly human, it would have no real conciousness. It would not be truly intelligent, it would merely be just running an algorithm, obeying the orders of the instructions in its electronic brain, working simply from the intelligence of the person who programmed in its orders. So, does this constitute intelligence, or is a conciousness necessary for something to be deemed intelligent?

This really boils down to a question of opinion- if something acts like it’s intelligent and is intelligent for all functional purposes, does that make it intelligent? Does it matter that it can’t really comprehend it’s own intelligence? John Searle, who first thought of the Chinese Room in the 1980’s, called the philosophical positions on this ‘strong AI’ and ‘weak AI’. Strong AI basically suggest that functional intelligence is intelligence to all intents and purposes- weak AI argues that the lack of true intelligence renders even the most advanced and realistic computer nothing more than a dumb machine.

However, Searle also proposes a very interesting idea that is prone to yet more philosophical debate- that our brains are mere machines in exactly the same way as computers are- the mechanics of the brain, deep in the unexplored depths of the fundamentals of neuroscience, are just machines that tick over and perform tasks in the same way as AI does- and that there is some completely different and non-computational mechanism that gives rise to our mind and conciousness.

But what if there is no such mechanism? What if the rise of a conciousness is merely the result of all the computational processes going on in our brain- what if conciousness is nothing more than a computational process itself, designed to give our brains a way of joining the dots and processing more efficiently. This is a quite frightening thought- that we could, in theory, be only restrained into not giving a computer a conciousness because we haven’t written the proper code yet. This is one of the biggest unanswered questions of modern science- what exactly is our mind, and what causes it.

To fully expand upon this particular argument would take time and knowledge that I don’t have in equal measure, so instead I will just leave that last question for you to ponder over- what is the difference between the box displaying these words for you right now, and the fleshy lump that’s telling you what they mean.