This article originally appeared in the November/December print issue of IMPO.
American manufacturing has had great success in automating factories with robots and computers in the last 50 years, and computers are now eliminating many service jobs. This has caused a lot of speculation about how far artificial intelligence can be developed.
Universities and scientists also add to the excitement by promoting artificial intelligence with futuristic potentials as they try to get their share of federal grant money. The big question that often arises is, when will computers be able to emulate humans and become self aware and intelligent?
The Human Brain
It all starts with an understanding of the human brain. The brain is not designed the same way as a digital computer. It is a kind of analogue neural network that encodes information on a continuum. It has its own unique system guiding the thinking process – connected by neurons – however, the way such neurons communicate and work is totally different from a digital computer.
Neurons are the real key to how the brain learns, thinks, perceives, stores memory and a host of other functions. Each neuron is a living cell and a computer in its own right. Unlike computers with fixed architecture, the brain can constantly re-wire its neurons to learn and adapt. Instead of programs, neural networks learn by doing and remembering, and this vast network of connected neurons gives the brain excellent pattern recognition.
Limitations of Digital Computers
We have been so successful with Large Scale Integration (LSI) in continuously shrinking microprocessor circuits and adding more transistors year after year that people have begun to believe that we might actually equal the human brain. But, there are problems.
The first problem is that in digital computers, all calculations must pass through the CPU which eventually slows down its program. The human brain doesn’t use a CPU and is much more efficient.
Secondly, there is a problem of energy use. The latest IBM super computer is the Blue Gene/Q Sequoia, which can perform calculations at 20.1 peta-flops (or 20.1 trillion calculations per second). But to operate at these speeds requires 7.9 megawatts of power. To build a supercomputer that would approximate the computing power of the human brain would take a thousand Blue Gene computers. According to Michio Kaku, author of The Future of the Mind, “The energy consumption would be so great that you would need a thousand megawatt nuclear power plant to generate the electricity. And to cool this monster you would need to divert a river and send it through the computer circuits.” The irony is that all of this computer power would only equal what we have in our 3.5 pound brain using 20 watts of power.
Unconscious mind – The unconscious mind is a great reservoir of our experiences. It is not like a computer hard-drive because it records everything we have smelled, touched, and tasted since birth. It is also the seat of our emotions and repressed or traumatic memories. There is no one place which stores this information; it is stored all over the brain. The unconscious mind does not reason or think, it simply stores all of the information needed by the conscious mind for the thinking process.
Feelings and emotions – We know that having feelings and emotions is necessary to emulate human thinking and it also may be a key to establishing consciousness. To add this to the robot would require designing something like our limbic system, which is the place in the brain where emotions are generated. The brain uses emotions as a value system to help determine what is most important. For a robot to attain human thinking, they would need to be designed with a value system and emotions.
Conscious mind – The conscious mind is a very advanced neural network that can access any relevant piece of information to be used in the thinking process — and it can edit and revise these pieces of information. At some time in the evolution of the brain, consciousness led to our ability to become self-aware.
It is important to point out that the brain does not work like a computer. Unlike a digital computer, which has a fixed architecture (input, output, and processor) neural networks are collections of neurons that constantly rewire and reinforce themselves after learning a new task. Just how the brain can access the right neurons to gather the relevant information for the conscious mind to think is still unknown. Every time the brain has a new thought or perception, it finds the neurons storing the information in many different parts of the brain. This search and recover operation changes every second, so the creation of artificial intelligence that mimics the brain and the brain's capacity for self-awareness will probably not occur in a silicone based computer.
The major problem in designing something equivalent to any of these brain functions is that neuroscience is only beginning to understand how they work together — much less how to replicate them in artificial intelligence.
How Far Can Machines Go?
In 1965, Dr. Herbert Simon, one of the founders of artificial intelligence said, ”Machines will be capable in 20 years of doing any work a man can do.” Likewise, Moshe Vardi, a computer scientist at Rice University in Houston said, “Everything that humans can do, machines can do.”
Now, I admit that current computers and software are replacing certain jobs that are repetitive, or those that can be reduced to 0s and 1s. Jobs like secretaries, travel agents, word processors, typists, and bookkeepers have been eliminated and the process is ongoing. But, replacing humans with a C3PO machine that is self aware and can make its own decisions is a long way off, and probably can’t be developed from our current computer designs using silicone and transistors. Perhaps a computer based on living cells, or a machine that can operate at a quantum level using nanotechnology will be a possible answer.
So any fear you might have of robots becoming self aware and taking your job have been greatly exaggerated. It is the bright and educated people in Asia who have the brains you should fear.