World Futures: Artificial Intelligence – Part One

Los Alamos World Futures Institute

At the end of the last column I stated that this week we would begin looking at artificial intelligence or AI. It was my belief that writing a bit (or byte) about AI would be easy, after all the term is used everywhere in advertising, it tells me what I like to watch on Netflix, and it is essential for science fiction such as RUR – Russumovi Univerzaini Roboti or “Rossum’s Universal Robots.” But what is AI in reality? Let’s start with artificial.

Going to the cell phone that tries to control me, I looked up “artificial.” From Google, artificial means “made or produced by human beings rather than occurring naturally, typically as a copy of something natural.” Moving to Merriam-Webster, I found it to mean man-made and humanly contrived, an imitation. And that took me back to some of my childhood days in Wisconsin and Rhode’s Dairy. When making ice cream I was counseled by my uncle Ralph that the “worst sin” one can commit was to use artificial vanilla. Remember, Wisconsin is the Dairy State, setting the highest standard for dairy products. Accordingly, in my family, any form of artificial flavoring in anything is “zly” – Polish for bad. Yet today 95 percent of vanilla used in foods is artificial vanilla – all because of monetary efficiency in highly competitive markets. By the way, vanilla is government regulated.

Moving to intelligence, a definition becomes more complex and difficult to understand, especially when used with the word “artificial.” Avoiding the military use of the term in gathering information about the enemy, intelligence does have a component of gathering, processing and understanding data and information. But it goes further. Quoting from Mainstream Science on Intelligence, intelligence is:
“A very general mental capability that, among other things, involves the ability to reason, plan, solve problems, think abstractly, comprehend complex ideas, learn quickly and learn from experience. It is not merely book learning, a narrow academic skill, or test-taking smarts. Rather, it reflects a broader and deeper capability for comprehending our surroundings – ‘catching on,” ‘making sense’ of things, or ‘figuring out’ what to do.”

This definition was sent to 131 researchers and only 52 signed it in agreement. This does not mean that it is wrong, rather it suggests there are many ways, subtleties, and words to define the abstract concept.

In exploring intelligence it is useful to look at the biological machine called a human being. Actually, all animals are biological machines but we are, perhaps, most familiar with humans since it describes us. When conceived, the embryo begins to develop using the code contained in the DNA. Is this the operating system for controlling machine development and booting it up? It defines the new machine that, when born, is capable of sustaining itself to some degree as long as it is provided energy and growth materials in the form of food as well as some degree of protection. Then following his or her unique DNA, the human begins to grow, gaining size and complexity. And it is both digital and analog. The core computer, the brain, controls the machine and begins to learn from outside input, not just the DNA code.

The outside information that the machine senses causes the brain to draw conclusions (e.g., mommy is a source of food) and alter its “thinking” (if I’m hungry, make sure mommy knows). The information is sensed through a network or sensors wired into the machine body, both digital and analog. The human “machine” uses its CPU to control itself, observe its environment, and reprogram itself as necessary. It generates new algorithms.

As the human machine grows, so does the size of the brain. The number of neurons (electrically excitable cells) in the brain is approximately 100 billion. This is, in a crude comparison, the size of the central computer. But it also has a vast array of sensors and control elements distributed throughout the body (the computer case) such as hands, feet, nose, eyes, ears and on and on. And it takes about 18 years to “fully program” the machine before it becomes “fully functional,” albeit learning and reprogramming never stops until the machine stops.

A key point about humans is that no two humans are identical. Even cloning cannot create identical humans since the programming changes during growth. Look at identical twins, same DNA, same appearance, but different because of the internal reprogramming based on environmental experience.

Intelligence is the ability to reprogram oneself, to change, adapt, take action reason and grow intellectually based on environmental experience. In humans, intelligence is part of growth, the evolution of the individual human machine. It varies based on biologics, the environment, chance, and the collective support of the greater body called humanity. But what about non-biologic machines? Can your cell phone learn and adapt?

Till next time….

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