The edge, away from the center, is where experiments take place new ideas take form. Using conversation as a technology, Edge.org was founded to invite the most complex and sophisticated minds, put them in a room together, and have them ask each other the questions they are asking themselves.
Each year is marked by a question. For 2015, the question is What do you think about machines that think? Daniel C. Dennet, Philosopher; Austin B. Fletcher Professor of Philosophy, Co-Director, Center for Cognitive Studies, Tufts University; Author, Intuition Pumps provides an interesting perspective:
The Singularity—the fateful moment when AI surpasses its creators in intelligence and takes over the world—is a meme worth pondering.
It has the earmarks of an urban legend: a certain scientific plausibility ("Well, in principle I guess it's possible!") coupled with a deliciously shudder-inducing punch line ("We'd be ruled by robots!"). Did you know that if you sneeze, belch, and fart all at the same time, you die? Wow.
Following in the wake of decades of AI hype, you might think the Singularity would be regarded as a parody, a joke, but it has proven to be a remarkably persuasive escalation. Add a few illustrious converts—Elon Musk, Stephen Hawking, and David Chalmers, among others—and how can we not take it seriously?
Whether this stupendous event takes place ten or a hundred or a thousand years in the future, isn't it prudent to start planning now, setting up the necessary barricades and keeping our eyes peeled for harbingers of catastrophe?
Taking a contrarian view, he argues that we are actually about to cede control of thinking to agent that can't think, thus depriving ourselves of important stimulation to keep our minds elastic - why remember how to find a location via relying on a sense of direction when we can open Google maps or a GPS? (keep those phones charged!)
I think, on the contrary, that these alarm calls distract us from a more pressing problem, an impending disaster that won't need any help from Moore's Law or further breakthroughs in theory to reach its much closer tipping point: after centuries of hard-won understanding of nature that now permits us, for the first time in history, to control many aspects of our destinies, we are on the verge of abdicating this control to artificial agents that can't think, prematurely putting civilization on auto-pilot.
The process is insidious because each step of it makes good local sense, is an offer you can't refuse. You'd be a fool today to do large arithmetical calculations with pencil and paper when a hand calculator is much faster and almost perfectly reliable (don't forget about round-off error), and why memorize train timetables when they are instantly available on your smart phone? Leave the map-reading and navigation to your GPS system; it isn't conscious; it can't think in any meaningful sense, but it's much better than you are at keeping track of where you are and where you want to go.
That is the easy example. Now let's escalate to more complex bodies of knowledge... and practice. Dennet says:
Much farther up the staircase, doctors are becoming increasingly dependent on diagnostic systems that are provably more reliable than any human diagnostician. Do you want your doctor to overrule the machine's verdict when it comes to making a life-saving choice of treatment?
This may prove to be the best—most provably successful, most immediately useful—application of the technology behind IBM's Watson, and the issue of whether or not Watson can be properly said to think (or be conscious) is beside the point. If Watson turns out to be better than human experts at generating diagnoses from available data it will be morally obligatory to avail ourselves of its results. A doctor who defies it will be asking for a malpractice suit.
No area of human endeavor appears to be clearly off-limits to such prosthetic performance-enhancers, and wherever they prove themselves, the forced choice will be reliable results over the human touch, as it always has been. Hand-made law and even science could come to occupy niches adjacent to artisanal pottery and hand-knitted sweaters.
How did we get here and why we are asking the question.
In the earliest days of AI, an attempt was made to enforce a sharp distinction between artificial intelligence and cognitive simulation.
The former was to be a branch of engineering, getting the job done by hook or by crook, with no attempt to mimic human thought processes—except when that proved to be an effective way of proceeding.
Cognitive simulation, in contrast, was to be psychology and neuroscience conducted by computer modeling. A cognitive simulation model that nicely exhibited recognizably human errors or confusions would be a triumph, not a failure.
The distinction in aspiration lives on, but has largely been erased from public consciousness: to lay people AI means passing the Turing Test, being humanoid.
The recent breakthroughs in AI have been largely the result of turning away from (what we thought we understood about) human thought processes and using the awesome data-mining powers of super-computers to grind out valuable connections and patterns without trying to make them understand what they are doing.
Ironically, the impressive results are inspiring many in cognitive science to reconsider; it turns out that there is much to learn about how the brain does its brilliant job of producing future by applying the techniques of data-mining and machine learning.
A good complement to the argument that no, big data should not replace thinking, but perhaps can help us learn how to think better. To quote a specific part of that post (and example follows):
It is a miracle how many times our brains, the wet systems inside a hard skull, fire synapses to deliver right answers through deduction, which is incredibly efficient (compare that to a machine that looks up volumes of what is not very fast).
To build on that thought further, we all have areas of competence, and we perform better when we operate within or not far from them. Daniel C. Dennet concludes:
But the public will persist in imagining that any black box that can do that (whatever the latest AI accomplishment is) must be an intelligent agent much like a human being, when in fact what is inside the box is a bizarrely truncated, two-dimensional fabric that gains its power precisely by not adding the overhead of a human mind, with all its distractability, worries, emotional commitments, memories, allegiances. It is not a humanoid robot at all but a mindless slave, the latest advance in auto-pilots.
What's wrong with turning over the drudgery of thought to such high-tech marvels? Nothing, so long as (1) we don't delude ourselves, and (2) we somehow manage to keep our own cognitive skills from atrophying.
(1) It is very, very hard to imagine (and keep in mind) the limitations of entities that can be such valued assistants, and the human tendency is always to over-endow them with understanding—as we have known since Joe Weizenbaum's notorious Eliza program of the early 1970s. This is a huge risk, since we will always be tempted to ask more of them than they were designed to accomplish, and to trust the results when we shouldn't.
(2) Use it or lose it. As we become ever more dependent on these cognitive prostheses, we risk becoming helpless if they ever shut down. The Internet is not an intelligent agent (well, in some ways it is) but we have nevertheless become so dependent on it that were it to crash, panic would set in and we could destroy society in a few days. That's an event we should bend our efforts to averting now, because it could happen any day.
The real danger, then, is not machines that are more intelligent than we are usurping our role as captains of our destinies. The real danger is basically clueless machines being ceded authority far beyond their competence.
What we do with what we learn in addition to how we learn it is not just a thought exercise. It's a provocative response that addresses the layers of assumptions attached to the question by contemporary culture and mainstream repetition.
In the last ten years, John Brockman, publisher of Edge.org, collected and published the contributions. Many of the questions are still compelling today. Starting from 2005 to 2014:
What We Believe but Cannot Prove - Scientific theory, more often than not, is born of bold assumption, disparate bits of unconnected evidence, and educated leaps of faith. Some of the most potent beliefs among brilliant minds are based on supposition alone -- yet that is enough to push those minds toward making the theory viable.
What Is Your Dangerous Idea? - From Copernicus to Darwin, to current-day thinkers, scientists have always promoted theories and unveiled discoveries that challenge everything society holds dear; ideas with both positive and dire consequences. Many thoughts that resonate today are dangerous not because they are assumed to be false, but because they might turn out to be true.
What Are You Optimistic About? - The nightly news and conventional wisdom tell us that things are bad and getting worse. Yet despite dire predictions, scientists see many good things on the horizon.
What Have You Changed Your Mind About? - Even geniuses change their minds sometimes.
This Will Change Everything - answers to the question “what game-changing scientific ideas and developments do you expect to live to see?”
Is the Internet Changing the Way You Think? - Steven Pinker, Richard Dawkins, Chris Anderson, Nassim Taleb, and nearly 150 other intellectual rock stars reveal how the internet is changing our minds, culture, and future.
This Will Make You Smarter: New Scientific Concepts to Improve Your Thinking - presents some of the best wisdom from today’s leading thinkers—to make better thinkers out of the leaders of tomorrow.
This Explains Everything: Deep, Beautiful, and Elegant Theories of How the World Works - Favorite explanations for everyday occurrences. Why do we recognize patterns? Is there such a thing as positive stress? Are we genetically programmed to be in conflict with each other.
What Should We Be Worried About?: Real Scenarios That Keep Scientists Up at Night - Drawing from the horizons of science, today's leading thinkers reveal the hidden threats nobody is talking about—and expose the false fears everyone else is distracted by.
This Idea Must Die: Scientific Theories That Are Blocking Progress - The bestselling editor of This Explains Everything brings together 175 of the world’s most brilliant minds to tackle Edge.org’s 2014 question: What scientific idea has become a relic blocking human progress?
Curiosity is the secret to a bigger life - it opens us to learning and helps us build human connections. Questions are a high-level form of thinking and we should become more aware of the power of inquiry and how it benefits us.
Explore more Edge.org answers to the 2015 question here.