Here at the OEG, a research group where I currently do my research (and where we also eat jamón and cakes), every once in a while we tend to informally discuss topics or research papers that we find interesting. This time, inspired by this interview with Douglas Hofstadter and in the presence of coffee and chocolate, we talked about artificial intelligence (AI) and discussed a couple of interesting questions raised in the interview, such as what AI really is and is there actually any intelligence in it.
Throughout my career I got to know various definitions of the AI. This doesn’t mean, however, that some definitions are right and some are wrong; rather, the context of one definition is different than of the other. Having said that, in order to approach any discussion about the nature and success of the AI, it is necessary to first be clear which of these definitions we are discussing.
One of the definitions of the AI is saying that the AI is about machines and computer programs that express intelligent behaviour and are able to solve problems that are typically solved only by humans. In this context, there are not so much interesting things to say; we all agreed that this definitions is the one that best suits to what AI really is today, and that in this sense we have gone through a lot of progress and achieved remarkable results in the past several decades. We have programs that can beat us in chess, we have programs that can translate text for us, we have robots that can go get us a sandwich, and we even have self-driving cars.
Much more interesting part of the discussion comes if we embrace the point of view in which every field of science has one big question that it is trying to answer. The big question in the AI is whether it is possible to create consciousness and intelligence outside of a living organism and, in this context, it is exactly what AI should try to achieve. The key difference with the previous approach is that here we are talking about not just behaving intelligently, but actually being intelligent. We are talking about a machine that thinks.
If we consider this second definition, the problem with the AI is that there is very little intelligence in it. The way that computer programs solve problems is far from the way people solve them. To take an example, the current AI approach for text translation works in a way that is far from how any person does it, and this is the key issue raised by Douglas Hofstadter in the interview mentioned at the beginning. On the other hand, we must admit that the goal of creating intelligence in a machine is extremely difficult and the science is not absolutely sure how the brain and intelligence work in the first place.
One of the interesting questions that arose in our discussion was whether or not we actually need to understand how the brain works, and whether or not we could replicate the brain inside the machine without such understanding. The replication of the behaviour of the human brain is exactly how Maria likes to define the AI and, according to Jorge, it might well be that there is no need to understand how the brain works but just to replicate its behaviour. A good analogy of this point of view is given by Stuart Russell and Peter Norvig in their book: “”The quest for artificial flight succeeded when the Wright brothers and others stopped imitating birds and started…learning about aerodynamics”. Airplanes don’t fly the wings, why should computers think?
No matter how much you like or not this second AI approach, the fact is that such AI is not just extremely difficult to achieve, but there is very little effort directed towards this achievement. The fundamental research in the AI lacks a larger community and dedication of more than a handful of scientists and research groups. If we want to see computer programs intelligent in a way that people are, able to think, learn, and apply the knowledge in new and complex situations, a lot more effort has to be dedicated in the fundamental AI research. And this is something that all of us in this discussion agreed on and would like to see it happening.
I strongly recommend you to read the interview that sparked our discussion on this topic. Also, the book by Douglas Hofstadter “Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid” is highly recommendable.