As a counterpoint to our post from earlier this week about robot-driven unemployment, we offer an article from The Economist called “Rise of the Machines,” which contends that our fears surrounding artificial intelligence are overblown:
Better smartphones, fancier robots and bringing the internet to the illiterate would all be good things. But do they justify the existential worries of Mr Musk and others? Might pattern-recognising, self-programming computers be an early, but crucial, step on the road to machines that are more intelligent than their creators?
The doom-mongers have one important fact on their side. There is no result from decades of neuroscientific research to suggest that the brain is anything other than a machine, made of ordinary atoms, employing ordinary forces and obeying the ordinary laws of nature. There is no mysterious “vital spark”, in other words, that is necessary to make it go. This suggests that building an artificial brain—or even a machine that looks different from a brain but does the same sort of thing—is possible in principle.
But doing something in principle and doing it in fact are not remotely the same thing. Part of the problem, says Rodney Brooks, who was one of AI’s pioneers and who now works at Rethink Robotics, a firm in Boston, is a confusion around the word “intelligence”. Computers can now do some narrowly defined tasks which only human brains could manage in the past (the original “computers”, after all, were humans, usually women, employed to do the sort of tricky arithmetic that the digital sort find trivially easy). An image classifier may be spookily accurate, but it has no goals, no motivations, and is no more conscious of its own existence than is a spreadsheet or a climate model. Nor, if you were trying to recreate a brain’s workings, would you necessarily start by doing the things AI does at the moment in the way that it now does them. AI uses a lot of brute force to get intelligent-seeming responses from systems that, though bigger and more powerful now than before, are no more like minds than they ever were. It does not seek to build systems that resemble biological minds. As Edsger Dijkstra, another pioneer of AI, once remarked, asking whether a computer can think is a bit like asking “whether submarines can swim.”
Above image: Andy Potts via The Economist