For each of the 12 days of Christmas, here’s something to beguile, distract – and leave you with questions for the year ahead
Consciousness was on our minds this year. It was definitely on mine. Twice, on transcontinental flights, I watched, a thriller about artificial intelligence (AI). It was a disturbing movie to watch in the mind-altering confines of a flying machine.
In January 2015, Bill Gates joined the chorus of high-profile names – including billionaire Elon Musk and physicist Stephen Hawking – who have voiced concerns that machine intelligence will eventually threaten humanity. If you have any doubts about the role of machine intelligence in our lives, look around: online services from Google to Netflix to Amazon are all using it to learn about our habits and influence what we do.
Machines are getting smarter, and computer scientist Pedro Domingos, in his book, argues that this trend will lead to the creation of a single all-knowing algorithm which, given enough data, will learn everything there is to learn about the world.
What, though, about the relationship between intelligence and consciousness? Playwright Tom Stoppard tackled the nature of consciousness in his new play. The phrase, coined by philosopher David Chalmers, refers to the difficulty of explaining how the material brain gives rise to the subjective, seemingly immaterial, mental life that we all experience.
All a hallucination
In Beyond Zero and One, Andrew Smart argues that “much of our intelligence derives from the fact that we are conscious”. He insists we have to understand why our brains hallucinate, because for him consciousness is itself a hallucination. “If you are willing to entertain the possibility that machines can have human consciousness, you should be willing to consider the possibility that these machines can, and perhaps should, trip on acid,” writes Smart.
Many AI researchers, on the other hand, think you can have super-intelligence without consciousness at all.
How close are we to solving the hard problem? When Stoppard and Chalmers shared the stage at The Wilma Theater in Philadelphia on 14 December, Chalmers said: “I don’t think it’s going to happen in 10 or 20 years. If it happens in 50 years, I’d be pleased but a little bit surprised… And it wouldn’t totally surprise me if in 200 years we have a complete theory of the brain and all the stuff it’s doing, and people are still arguing about ‘how on earth does it explain consciousness?’”
Meanwhile a handful of twenty and thirtysomethings are getting unimaginably wealthy by fortuitously inventing machine-learning technology and gaining undeniable power over the rest of us. That, anyway, is my uneasy impression, and it’s neatly articulated in the opening scenes of Ex Machina, when programmer Caleb Smith is helicoptered to the home of multi-billionaire Nathan Bateman, where he’ll meet Bateman’s AI, Ava.
They are flying over a vast, dramatic landscape of forests, mountains and crevassed ice-fields. “How long before we get to his estate?” Caleb asks. The pilot replies: “We have been flying over his estate for the past 2 hours.”
Maybe the open-source project on AI (announced earlier this month and, ironically, funded by tech billionaires) will spread the benefits of AI while avoiding its pitfalls. That’s my holiday wish.
Image credit: Justin Kase ztwoz/Alamy; artist: Robert Indiana
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