Thursday, March 7, 2019

Books: "Possible Minds" On the Growth Of AI

Possible Minds: 25 Ways of Looking at AI
Edited By John Brockman
Penguin Press; hardcover, 320 pages; $28.00

Artificial intelligence has grown so rapidly in our everyday lives, from Alexa in our homes to autonomous vehicles to artificial recognition technology, we may not fully comprehend how it has altered our lives forever.

AI is poised to define the coming decades, with tech giants engaged in a virtual arms race, while thought leaders such as Elon Musk and the late Stephen Hawking have warned that unsupervised, self-improving machine learning can pose a major threat to society.

In the new book, Possible Minds: 25 Ways of Looking at AI, leading scientific thinkers to discuss the groundbreaking opportunities and potential dangers that AI presents. The writings were assembled by science world luminary John Brockman, the founder and publisher of the online salon Edge (, called "the world's smartest website by the Guardian

John Brockman.
Brockman also founded the powerhouse international literary and software agency Brockman, Inc., where he works with top science authors from around the world. He writes an introduction about each thinker, including how he knows them and biographical information, before their essays.

The broad range of perspectives and what feels like debate between opposing viewpoints offers a truly panoramic view of the future of artificial intelligence. Computer scientist Stuart Russell, Skype co-founder John Tallinn,, and physicist Max Tegmark, are deeply concerned about the threats from AI, including the existential one.

Tegmark is an MIT physicist, an AI researcher, and the president of the Future of Life Institute, and he writes on how AI can make humans obsolete, "Although there's great controversy about how and when AI will impact humanity, the situation is clearer from a cosmic perspective: The technology-developing life that has evolved on Earth is rushing to make itself obsolete without devoting much serious thought to the consequences. This strikes me as embarrassingly lame, given that we can create amazing opportunities for humanity to flourish like never before, if we dare to steer a more ambitious course.
"Our Universe has become aware of itself 13.8 billion years after its birth. On a small blue planet, tiny conscious parts of our Universe have discovered that what they once thought was the sum total of existence was a minute part of something far grander: a solar system in a galaxy in a universe with more than 100 billion other galaxies, arranged into an elaborate pattern of groups, clusters, and superclusters.
"Consciousness is the cosmic awakening; it transformed our Universe from a mindless zombie with no self-awareness into a living ecosystem harboring self-reflection, beauty, hope, meaning, and purpose. Had that awakening never taken place, our Universe would have been pointless - a gigantic waste of space. Should our Universe go back to sleep permanently due to to some cosmic calamity or self-inflicted mishap, it will become meaningless again.
"On the other hand, things could get even better. We don't yet know whether we humans are the only stargazers in the cosmos, or even the first, but we've already learned enough about our Universe to know that it has the potential to wake up much more fully than it has thus far. AI pioneers such as Norbert Weiner have taught us that a further awakening of our Universe's ability to process and experience information need not require eons of additional evolution but perhaps mere decades of human scientific ingenuity.
"We may be like that first glimmer of self-awareness you experienced when you emerged from sleep this morning, a premonition of the much greater consciousness that would arrive once you opened your eyes and fully awoke. Perhaps artificial superintelligence will enable life to spread throughout the cosmos and flourish for billions or trillions of years, and perhaps this will be because of decisions we make here, on our planet, in our lifetime.
"Or humanity may soon go extinct, through some self-inflicted calamity caused by the power of our technology growing faster than  the wisdom with which we manage it."

Others take a different viewpoint, led by robotics entrepreneur Rodney Brooks, philosopher Daniel Dennett, and bestselling author Steven Pinker. Nobel Prize-winning physicist Frank Wilczek examines artificial and natural intelligence, while developmental psychologist Alison Gopnik applies her research into how humans learn methods of AI. 

Gopnik, in her essay titled "AIs Versus Four-Year Olds," writes, "Everyone's heard about the new advances in artificial intelligence, and especially machine learning. You've also heard utopian or apocalyptic predictions about what those advances mean. They have been taken to presage either immortality or the end of the world, and a lot has been written about both of those possibilities. But the most sophisticated AIs are still far from being able to solve problems that human four-year-olds accomplish with ease. In spite of the impressive name, artificial intelligence largely consists of techniques to detect statistical patterns in large data sets. There is much more to human learning.
"How can we possibly know so much about the world around us? We learn an enormous amount even when we are small children; four-year-olds already know about plants and animals and machines; desires, beliefs, and emotions; even dinosaurs and spaceships.
"Science has extended our knowledge about the world to the unimaginably large and the infinitesimally small, to the edge of the universe and the beginning of time. And we use that knowledge to make new classifications and predictions, imagine new possibilities, and make new things happen in the world. But all that reaches any of us from the world is stream of photons hitting our retinas and disturbances of air at our eardrums. How do we learn so much about the world when the evidence we have is so limited? And how do we do all this with the few pounds of grey goo that sits behind our eyes?
"The best answer so far is that our brains perform computations on the concrete, particular, messy data arriving at our senses, and those computations yield accurate representations of the world. The representations seem to be structured, abstract, and hierarchical; they include the perception of three-dimensional objects, the grammars that underlie language, and mental capacities like 'theory of mind,' which lets us understand what other people think. Those representations allow us to make a wide range of new predictions and imagine many new possibilities in a distinctively creative human way."

Possible Minds lays out the intellectual landscape of the most important technology shaping our world today. This serious and authoritative collection will definitely make you think and look at the world in a brand new way. 

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