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Smart Computers - Update on Artificial Intelligence

When you do not know exactly how digital computers work and how programmers utilize the hardware, it is easy to be fooled into believing that computers are intelligent or will be soon. When you know exactly how digital computing works, you are less likely to believe in computers that will develop their own intelligence. In fact, a programmer knows that he or she has to tell the computer exactly what to do in precise and annoying detail. Without expert programming, digital computers are dumb machines.

The ability of a digital computer to calculate quickly exceeds human ability. A common impression is that a calculating computer is smart. Humans have difficulty doing calculations and only a small percentage of any student population will excel in mathematical ability. The ability to calculate quickly and accurately is overly impressive.

The abstract reasoning that underlies advanced mathematics is more interesting and is independent of the ability to calculate. Most mathematicians are happy to do calculations on a digital machine and do not feel the least bit threatened that some computer will take over their job of abstract reasoning. Digital computers have no sense of meaning, cannot perceive and are only able to make simple robotic decisions about the data they receive. They can store images accurately and will faithfully recall stored data unless a malfunction intervenes. Output procedures are echoes of input procedures. The biggest advance in programming involves searching thru large databases to find the right answers to specific questions. Goggle`s search engines represent state of the art algorithms, designed to deliver relevant results to search inquiries. Failure to achieve relevance remains a persistent search problem. Google requires teams of programmers working full time everyday to monitor and refine their software.

Popular science fiction postulates that digital computers will become intelligent sentient beings and take over the world. Arthur Clark’s Science fiction novel and Stanley Kubrick’s movie version of 2001 were thrilling in 1968. I was thrilled the sense of motion during the docking of shuttle with the space station, transformed by Strauss’ Blue Danube Waltz. The spacecraft in the movie was operated by HAL, the computer. HAL represented the possibility of computers developing human-like artificial intelligence.

In 1968, anything was possible, but with subsequent developments in computer science, we now know that living intelligence is so developed, complex and profound that any success with machine programming is disappointing and rudimentary. We now know that real intelligence lies well beyond the ability of present and future digital machines. In AI there is more artificial and less intelligence.

David Stork, a machine intelligence researcher wrote: “Perhaps a dark side of HAL’s legacy is to have fixed an anthropomorphic view of artificial intelligence so firmly in the minds of a generation of researchers… But those idiot savants (AI programs) did not show even the slightest signs of achieving general competence. In the subsequent AI winter -- brought on by the end of a military research spree as well as the inevitable collision between venture capitalists and reality – only the mechanical cockroaches survived.“

I do not believe that digital computers even of great speed and complexity will attain consciousness, nor do I believe that robots controlled by digital computers will ever come close to achieving the self-organizing, free-living intelligence of a human.

Mark Tildon of Los Almos Laboratories makes small robots from spare parts derived from discarded portable cassette players. A few transistors in his robots handle the task of moving limbs and solving problems such as getting past obstacles or dealing with broken parts. His robots resemble insects and move like insects. Tildon observes that living brains solve the complex tasks of surviving as free beings in an ever-changing world by using simple and compact circuits. He observes that efforts to make free-living robots using digital computing fail because even simple tasks quickly grow in complexity and require state of the art computing power.

Digital robots are in a much simpler domain than living creatures and may never compete well, even at a rudimentary level. While the work done on robotics and artificial intelligence is interesting and useful, progress to date informs us that it will be exceeding difficult to achieve the digital equivalent of the free-living intelligence of an ant. AI and robotics helps us to appreciate that the ant brain is a marvel of computation and miniaturization. We may eventually progress to computational devices based on different materials and strategies that are more brain-like and achieve better and unexpected results. At this writing, no one knows how to do this. The search continues with the study of animal brains.

Despite the science fiction roots and unrealistic arguments (often delusional), machine intelligence enthusiasts are more visible and vocal than ever before. Their meetings have the giddy feel of a born-again religious revival. One god-substitute is singularity:” Techno-Rapture. A black hole in the Extropian worldview whose gravity is so intense that no light can be shed on what lies beyond it. … the human mind is not the final word. Someday, human technology will advance to the point of being able to improve on the underlying hardware (the brain) - an event known as the Singularity. Depending on how much futurism people have been exposed to, they tend to imagine different candidate technologies, “different timescales, and different outcomes for humanity. The Singularity Institute's favored technology is computer-based synthetic minds - "Artificial Intelligence" or "AI" - which we think can be developed quickly and with an outcome favorable to humanity … The Singularity Institute seriously intends to build a true general intelligence, possessed of all the key subsystems of human intelligence, plus design features unique to AI. We do not hold that all the complex features of the human mind are "emergent", or that intelligence is the result of some simple architectural principle, or that general intelligence will appear if we simply add enough data or computing power. “

There is room for fantasy and speculative thinking; however, no-one needs to take the Singularity view or timetable seriously. Some of the worst future predictions claim that digital circuitry is becoming faster, denser and less expensive and therefore “supercomputers’ will soon emerge that have greater processing power than the human brain. Some even suggest that massive parallel processing is superior to brain computational abilities.

There is no knowledge that allows anyone to assess brain processing ability and no basis to compare living brains with digital computers. One of the aspects of “futuristic speculations” that amazes me is the lack of knowledge about the present. Another aspect that concerns me the most is the ignorance of life processes. I doubt that any machine will soon display free-living competence. Ant brains are amazing but digital robots are disappointing. The challenge for future computer designers is to make robots that do as well as an insect in a free-living competition. This task will require a new computing technology, lots of money and the rest of this century to achieve. Unless, of course, some genius discovers and copies brain circuitry that underlies insect competence.

I am concerned about human treachery, but have no concern about machines independently developing destructive intentions that could rival or match their human makers. Evil is a human invention. Humans already make world-destroying machines. This is not a future scenario. Once launched, a world-destroying machine such as an intercontinental ballistic missile carrying hydrogen bombs is self-sufficient. The ICBM is a dumb robot that after launch can find its way to its target without further assistance from human programmers. A bevy of dumb ICBM robots with hydrogen bomb warheads can destroy human civilization. The combination of bad and dumb humans and dumb robots is to be feared. This is history and no one has to wait for future malevolent robots to be constructed.