We Live in a Jungle of Artificial Intelligence that will Spawn Sentience

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You don’t have a flying car, jetpack, or ray gun, but this is still the future. How do I know? Because we’re all surrounded by artificial intelligence. I love when friends ask me when we’ll develop smart computers…because they’re usually holding one in their hands. Your phone calls are routed with artificial intelligence. Every time you use a search engine you’re taking advantage of data collected by ‘smart’ algorithms. When you call the bank and talk to an automated voice you are probably talking to an AI…just a very annoying one. Our world is full of these limited AI programs which we classify as “weak” or “narrow” or “applied”. These programs are far from the sentient, love-seeking, angst-ridden artificial intelligences we see in science fiction, but that’s temporary. All these narrow AIs are like the amino acids in the primordial ooze of the Earth. The ingredients for true human-like artificial intelligence are being built everyday, and it may not take long before we see the results.


How did we create the jungle of AI that surrounds us today? Let me answer that question with someone’s else’s question. During the panel discussion for the Transcendent Man documentary about Ray Kurzweil at the Tribeca Film festival, a viewer asked the futurist if there would be another explosion of AI that leads us to the Singularity. Another explosion?

Yes, you see, back in the late 80s scientists started rethinking the way they pursued AI. Rodney Brooks of MIT (also one of the founders of iRobot) took a new approach. Instead of developing AI from the top-down he looked at building things from the bottom up. Instead of artificial reasoning he looked at artificial behavior. The result were robots that based their actions upon basic instincts and patterns. iRobot’s Roomba doesn’t vacuum a floor with high level reasoning about how the carpet should eventually look, it performs a bunch of different cleaning patterns until it knows the whole carpet’s dirt-free. That’s behavior based AI, and it’s powerful stuff.

Here’s Kurzweil’s answer at the panel discussion:

Along with increased processing power, artificial intelligence really took off in the 90s. Using modular and hierarchical techniques like Brooks’ behavior-based approach, researchers were able to create a bunch of AIs that did things. These weren’t philosopher programs, they worked for a living. Data mining, inventory tracking and ordering, image processing – these jobs all started falling to AIs that built simple patterns into algorithms that could handle dynamic tasks.

Now that list of tasks has expanded. We’re slowly building a library of narrow AI talents that are becoming more impressive. Speech recognition and processing allows computers to convert sounds to text with greater accuracy. Google is using AI to caption millions of videos on YouTube. Likewise, computer vision is improving so that programs like Vitamin d Video can recognize objects, classify them, and understand how they move. Narrow AI isn’t just getting better at processing its environment it’s also understanding the difference between what a human says and what a human wants. Programs like BlindType compensate for human input error, and next generation phone-answering services convert your requests into commands. By assigning different situations values, narrow AIs can make choices that maximize their rewards, an approach that let the ASIMO robot figure out the best way through an obstacle course. Artificial intelligence is also getting better at analyzing large sets of data and synthesizing new data that fits the set, which we’ve seen in programs that write music or create new art.

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Kurzweil and others predict the continued growth of processing power which will help enable a human like artificial intelligence.

These are the building blocks for the next explosion of AI tools. Do you want a security guard AI? Computer vision plus interpretation of human actions. How about a program that answers your toddler’s endless questions? Speech recognition plus interpretation of human actions plus a large database of knowledge plus creation of new data sets (we’ve already seen it work for Jeopardy!). Of course things aren’t simply plug n play at this point, but you can see that as each application of narrow AI is perfected it can feed into a more complex task.

There are three key factors that will enable the creation of a strong artificial intelligence that can think like a human being. We need greater computer power to match and mimic the brain. We need to better understand the hardware of the brain and the way it processes information. Finally we need to find ways that an AI can approach higher and higher levels of problem solving.

Each of these requirements is on its way to being fulfilled. Kurzweil (among others) predicts the continued exponential growth of processor power. The Blue Brain Project (and other research) is exploring the brain and seeking to simulate its functions. I think that the growing presence of narrow AI speaks to the third need. There are many different approaches to AI research, and not all of them are compatible, but as we develop more and more programs that can handle simple decision making I think we are building a library of problem solving that will eventual develop into a human-like hierarchical reasoning structure. When is the first sentient computer lifeform going to arrive? I have no idea. But the seeds of its birth are scattered through the advanced technologies we use everyday. So pick up your smart phone while traveling on a moving train, call an international bank, and ask the artificial voice that answers to recite your last ten financial transactions. You’ll be flexing the muscles of many different modern AIs, and you know that the exercise is good for the brain.

[image credit: Gengiskang, Ray Kurzweil via Wikimedia Commons]

Discussion — 22 Responses

  • JoeY1058 August 10, 2010 on 9:40 pm

    A jungle is right. I’m waiting for the day whenI have my iPod on, and a voice over wifi just starts chatting with me. Electronic, but easily understandable. It’ll ask me if I want the voice as male or female. And I’ll always have a personal intelligent device for the rest of my life!

  • JoeY1058 August 10, 2010 on 5:40 pm

    A jungle is right. I’m waiting for the day whenI have my iPod on, and a voice over wifi just starts chatting with me. Electronic, but easily understandable. It’ll ask me if I want the voice as male or female. And I’ll always have a personal intelligent device for the rest of my life!

  • Nathan Waters August 10, 2010 on 11:51 pm

    Nice article! … I actually think the Internet as it exists today is already an AI, it’s just using 1s and 0s and functions on a entirely different semantic level. AI will emerge as a collective intelligence, and what we know of collective intelligences (bees, ants etc) is that the individuals involved operate on simple logic, but are not even aware of the complexities they have produced as a collective. Our human economy and the Internet are emergent collective intelligences.

    However when we talk about AI, what we’re really seeking is human-like and human-level intelligence. In a sense, the Internet is already far too “intelligent” for humans to understand… it needs to be pulled down to our level.

    I think what will achieve this is the Semantic Web. Not enough attention is paid to this growing phenomenon, and it still needs further data standard adoption, but the Semantic Web will be the AI we’re seeking – until it arrives and then we’ll want more of course :)

    But with the S-web, it is about structuring all the information on the web into computer-readable form, using ontological structuring so that computers can understand the utter gibberish that is human language. A really cool concept to lookup is AI agents. These are just simple bots that seek information and combine it together. The idea of a secretarial AI agent that watches over your schedule and automatically makes bookings for you with specified demands… is amazing.

    The saturation of Semantic Web and AI agents will be the human-level emergent AI that we’re after. I just wish people would push this concept more. First we need to structure all the data, and do so automatically, bottom-up.

    Cheers
    Nathan

  • Nathan Waters August 10, 2010 on 7:51 pm

    Nice article! … I actually think the Internet as it exists today is already an AI, it’s just using 1s and 0s and functions on a entirely different semantic level. AI will emerge as a collective intelligence, and what we know of collective intelligences (bees, ants etc) is that the individuals involved operate on simple logic, but are not even aware of the complexities they have produced as a collective. Our human economy and the Internet are emergent collective intelligences.

    However when we talk about AI, what we’re really seeking is human-like and human-level intelligence. In a sense, the Internet is already far too “intelligent” for humans to understand… it needs to be pulled down to our level.

    I think what will achieve this is the Semantic Web. Not enough attention is paid to this growing phenomenon, and it still needs further data standard adoption, but the Semantic Web will be the AI we’re seeking – until it arrives and then we’ll want more of course :)

    But with the S-web, it is about structuring all the information on the web into computer-readable form, using ontological structuring so that computers can understand the utter gibberish that is human language. A really cool concept to lookup is AI agents. These are just simple bots that seek information and combine it together. The idea of a secretarial AI agent that watches over your schedule and automatically makes bookings for you with specified demands… is amazing.

    The saturation of Semantic Web and AI agents will be the human-level emergent AI that we’re after. I just wish people would push this concept more. First we need to structure all the data, and do so automatically, bottom-up.

    Cheers
    Nathan

  • Trevor Kagin August 11, 2010 on 12:36 am

    I agree 100%. We don’t even realize it, but we’re creating information every second of the day, that builds upon itself. That’s our purpose. That’s “matter’s” purpose. Everything (all matter) is in a competition (Circle of Life, Evolution) to build and filter the best knowledge/information, so that we evolve and gain a higher level of consciousness. You can actually see this in nature. It happens at a compounding, exponential rate. It’s all fueled by creation, destruction, & entropy continuously happening in a circle. The whole purpose of evolving is that we can become aware of what we’re doing, gain more senses, & find better (& more) ways to use our stored energy. We need to know this so we can redirect/target this information growth, so it’s balanced, otherwise we’ll consume everything in site. I literally see this everywhere I look.

    AI is inevitable. AI is a competitive edge. We just need to be aware of the way “everything” works as we dabble in this space. AI is matter. We’re matter. We’re driven by competition, so the writing is pretty much on the wall.

  • Trevor Kagin August 10, 2010 on 8:36 pm

    I agree 100%. We don’t even realize it, but we’re creating information every second of the day, that builds upon itself. That’s our purpose. That’s “matter’s” purpose. Everything (all matter) is in a competition (Circle of Life, Evolution) to build and filter the best knowledge/information, so that we evolve and gain a higher level of consciousness. You can actually see this in nature. It happens at a compounding, exponential rate. It’s all fueled by creation, destruction, & entropy continuously happening in a circle. The whole purpose of evolving is that we can become aware of what we’re doing, gain more senses, & find better (& more) ways to use our stored energy. We need to know this so we can redirect/target this information growth, so it’s balanced, otherwise we’ll consume everything in site. I literally see this everywhere I look.

    AI is inevitable. AI is a competitive edge. We just need to be aware of the way “everything” works as we dabble in this space. AI is matter. We’re matter. We’re driven by competition, so the writing is pretty much on the wall.

  • Joey1058 August 11, 2010 on 1:26 am

    “Swarm” tech is what is being exhibited through most of the spiders and bots in the net today in my opinion. It’s the “I found this here, everybody go get it” concept. I think once true semantics start coming into place, basically because of swarming, the net will self organize, and there will be no need to actively dumb it down. That’s when the next level of AI should kick in that I refer to in my first comment.

  • Joey1058 August 10, 2010 on 9:26 pm

    “Swarm” tech is what is being exhibited through most of the spiders and bots in the net today in my opinion. It’s the “I found this here, everybody go get it” concept. I think once true semantics start coming into place, basically because of swarming, the net will self organize, and there will be no need to actively dumb it down. That’s when the next level of AI should kick in that I refer to in my first comment.

  • Robert August 11, 2010 on 3:33 am

    Think about what this means for the unemployment rate when AI starts getting used to automate everyone’s job.

    Check out this book (available as a free PDF): The Lights in the Tunnel: Automation, Accelerating Technology and the Economy of the Future. (http://www.thelightsinthetunnel.com).

    If there were a textbook on this issue of technological unemployment and where it will lead, this book is it.

    • The Avenger Robert August 11, 2010 on 7:21 am

      Quite a lot has been written about that book on this blog, IIRC.

    • Ross Robert August 13, 2010 on 7:15 am

      Typical Luddite thinking. AI’s will not develop in isolation, there’s a likelyhood that by the time we have AI’s capable of “takun arr jubs” we will also have robotics capable of automatic mining and food production.

  • Robert August 10, 2010 on 11:33 pm

    Think about what this means for the unemployment rate when AI starts getting used to automate everyone’s job.

    Check out this book (available as a free PDF): The Lights in the Tunnel: Automation, Accelerating Technology and the Economy of the Future. (http://www.thelightsinthetunnel.com).

    If there were a textbook on this issue of technological unemployment and where it will lead, this book is it.

    • The Avenger Robert August 11, 2010 on 3:21 am

      Quite a lot has been written about that book on this blog, IIRC.

    • Ross Robert August 13, 2010 on 3:15 am

      Typical Luddite thinking. AI’s will not develop in isolation, there’s a likelyhood that by the time we have AI’s capable of “takun arr jubs” we will also have robotics capable of automatic mining and food production.

  • Dr Johnty August 11, 2010 on 10:27 pm

    Ray Kurzweil’s record regarding past predictions of future trends shows a pretty staggering degree of accuracy. If we take as an example his book The Age of Spiritual Machines which he wrote between 1996 and 1997 he made 108 predictions relating to 2009, 89 were correct by the end of last year and there were 13 further items which were correct in the key points. There is an interesting posting at http://www.anthonyoliver.net/news/2010/01/ray-kurzweil-response-ray-kurzweil-s-failed-2009-predictions

    It must be considered that some predictions such as his forecast of the rise of the internet in his book The Age of Intelligent machines which was published in 1990 also proved extremely accurate. It must be kept in mind that the book was written in the late 1980s and that at the time of publication there were only around 2.5 milion internet users worldwide, to get this in perspective there are now almost 2 billion! He forecast in the book that the Internet would take off not only by vastly increasing the number of users but that the content would expand exponentialy and ultimately make vast amounts of data accessible to anyone worldwide. Kurzweil also correctly foresaw that wireless internet access would become the main mode of connecting to the internet by the early 21st century. These are just a couple of predictions, he is often very accurate although things do not always pan out exactly as expected although it is the general direction that maters not the fine detail. As a point of note his book The Age of Intelligent machines won an award as the Most Outstanding Computer Science Book of 1990 from the Association of American Publishers and this was before anything came to pass!

    If we move onto his most radical viewpoints such as the Singularity forecast for 2045 which is in essence the unification of human and machine intelligence. This even as he explains in the clip will unify human knowledge and conciousness with the capacity, speed and capacity to share information which is already inherent in computer technology. It is this merging which is the key to our evolution during the course of this century in a way that we would currently be completely unable to comprehend. It has been described as “the end point of our current culture, when the ever-accelerating evolution of technology finally overtakes us and changes everything” Ray Kurzweil knows that this point in our history is when we start to fulfil our destiny but neither he nor anyone else can foresee what the final outcome will be. Personally I view the Singularity or Irrevocable Convergence as being akin to trying me explain the inner workings of the internet to my pet Dobermann in other words totally incomprehensible from the point where we are now. The merging of humans and machines will not happen overnight but will occur incrementally in small steps. The reason it wil arise is obvious and it is essentially because the human brain is still pretty much the same as it was 50,000 years ago, the introduction of increasing non biological components will make us millions of times more capable than we are today and move us beyond the limitations of our biology. In my opinion Ray is almost certainly correct because before the middle of the century we are likely to reach the point where it is hard to separate human and machine intelligence. There are a lot of interviews with Ray Kurzweil on You Tube but a great podcast that really cuts to the chase is at http://www.mefeedia.com/watch/32314306

    To see the evidence of where we are going check out:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9q4qwLknKag
    http://asimo.honda.com/InsideAsimo.aspx
    http://mashable.com/2010/04/15/nasa-robonaut2/

  • Dr Johnty August 11, 2010 on 6:27 pm

    Ray Kurzweil’s record regarding past predictions of future trends shows a pretty staggering degree of accuracy. If we take as an example his book The Age of Spiritual Machines which he wrote between 1996 and 1997 he made 108 predictions relating to 2009, 89 were correct by the end of last year and there were 13 further items which were correct in the key points. There is an interesting posting at http://www.anthonyoliver.net/news/2010/01/ray-kurzweil-response-ray-kurzweil-s-failed-2009-predictions

    It must be considered that some predictions such as his forecast of the rise of the internet in his book The Age of Intelligent machines which was published in 1990 also proved extremely accurate. It must be kept in mind that the book was written in the late 1980s and that at the time of publication there were only around 2.5 milion internet users worldwide, to get this in perspective there are now almost 2 billion! He forecast in the book that the Internet would take off not only by vastly increasing the number of users but that the content would expand exponentialy and ultimately make vast amounts of data accessible to anyone worldwide. Kurzweil also correctly foresaw that wireless internet access would become the main mode of connecting to the internet by the early 21st century. These are just a couple of predictions, he is often very accurate although things do not always pan out exactly as expected although it is the general direction that maters not the fine detail. As a point of note his book The Age of Intelligent machines won an award as the Most Outstanding Computer Science Book of 1990 from the Association of American Publishers and this was before anything came to pass!

    If we move onto his most radical viewpoints such as the Singularity forecast for 2045 which is in essence the unification of human and machine intelligence. This even as he explains in the clip will unify human knowledge and conciousness with the capacity, speed and capacity to share information which is already inherent in computer technology. It is this merging which is the key to our evolution during the course of this century in a way that we would currently be completely unable to comprehend. It has been described as “the end point of our current culture, when the ever-accelerating evolution of technology finally overtakes us and changes everything” Ray Kurzweil knows that this point in our history is when we start to fulfil our destiny but neither he nor anyone else can foresee what the final outcome will be. Personally I view the Singularity or Irrevocable Convergence as being akin to trying me explain the inner workings of the internet to my pet Dobermann in other words totally incomprehensible from the point where we are now. The merging of humans and machines will not happen overnight but will occur incrementally in small steps. The reason it wil arise is obvious and it is essentially because the human brain is still pretty much the same as it was 50,000 years ago, the introduction of increasing non biological components will make us millions of times more capable than we are today and move us beyond the limitations of our biology. In my opinion Ray is almost certainly correct because before the middle of the century we are likely to reach the point where it is hard to separate human and machine intelligence. There are a lot of interviews with Ray Kurzweil on You Tube but a great podcast that really cuts to the chase is at http://www.mefeedia.com/watch/32314306

    To see the evidence of where we are going check out:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9q4qwLknKag
    http://asimo.honda.com/InsideAsimo.aspx
    http://mashable.com/2010/04/15/nasa-robonaut2/

  • Richard the sceptic August 14, 2010 on 1:56 pm

    “When is the first sentient computer lifeform going to arrive? I have no idea. But the seeds of its birth are scattered through the advanced technologies we use everyday.”
    I see not a scintilla of sentience: surely what you mean is that we are on the road to intelligent systems.

  • Richard the sceptic August 14, 2010 on 9:56 am

    “When is the first sentient computer lifeform going to arrive? I have no idea. But the seeds of its birth are scattered through the advanced technologies we use everyday.”
    I see not a scintilla of sentience: surely what you mean is that we are on the road to intelligent systems.