Here’s a secret. When you search Google, causing Larry Page and Sergey Brin’s massive computers to index the entire internet and bring you, say, gourmet cookie recipes, Larry and Sergey are having a little fun with those computer systems’ downtime. They are running experiments in artificial intelligence. More than a year ago Page told the American Association for the Advancement of Science that he doesn’t think A.I. is that far off, since our own human DNA programming is only 600 megabytes, “smaller than any modern operating system.”
We think A.I. will surprise us all when it comes — because we may not recognize it.
The trouble with artificial intelligence is it won’t look anything like us. The future holds two alternatives: computational intelligence that will lack the human senses of vision, touch, taste and smell, and thus see the world very differently than us; or intelligent systems that may contain you and us as parts of its vast neural network, and be so big we may not notice them.
You see, humans have a tendency to anthropomorphize everything … that is, throw human characteristics on our beliefs, gods, monsters, past and future. Ancient Egyptians thought their sacred statues had intelligence. Christians, Jews, Muslims and Buddhists all give divine beings a human form. The first true modern story of artificial intelligence, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, asked whether an artificial mind could also feel. Recently science fiction has spun A.I. as humans gone bad: the onboard computer HAL in 2001 which sounds nice but goes nuts, or Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Terminator, a bigger, angry human machine ready to kill.
But real A.I. will be truly different. Most of what makes us human is our animalistic urges. People, while intelligent, are obsessed with food (you must eat every day to survive), defecation (ditto), sex (be honest), and greed (the survival instinct to hoard pelts, fight for promotion or shop at the mall). The very fact that our most intelligent leaders disagree so passionately about simple issues such as education, healthcare, military, energy and the environment proves that the hormones and passions running through our blood skew our thinking. If we are honest, we aren’t that intelligent at all; our animal urges push us to fuss and fight, mate and steal, plundering the group resources of the planet for our own individual survival.
A.I. in a computer system would not act like humans because it would not have flesh, blood, hunger or hormones. Self-awareness, the ability to ask questions, and the impulse for survival might exist in that system. But the view of the world that humans have — visual images in our minds of other people, landscapes, and the abstractions that arise from them such as mathematics or money — would be entirely unique. Such a system might be able to control resources a la The Matrix, but the direction of its logic would be alien.
The second alternative is A.I. as a system, the one that you are already a part of. Think of an army of ants marching through the jungle, or bees sending out scouts to search for pollen, and from our macro view 6 feet in the air we can see that such systems have group intelligence. Well, why not humans? Don’t we act like ants on our own roads? We are connecting continents, raising cities, emitting carbon, terraforming the planet. The system that impels you to drive to work every Monday is moving in a vast direction, remaking the skin of the Earth. Maybe Pangaea is a vast intelligence and we are the top worker bees, spreading pollen for some unknown cause.
Artificial intelligence may never come. The human brain has 100 trillion synapses that could be connected in so many different ways that the actual computational possibilities in your mind are hyperastronomical — meaning your brain has more connections than there are stars in the universe. Replicating that in computer systems or even vast human networks will not be easy.
Still, we see glimpses of group intelligence in the markets that buy and sell stocks or currency, the macro swings of our economy that drive resource consumption. Half the Earth’s population is now connected by mobile phones; we don’t know what will happen from communication network effects. Perhaps A.I. is already here, living on Wall Street or in cell phone towers. If so, we’re certain it has a headache.