Artificial Intelligence

Published originally as an answer to the following question for Vox Populi 14:

2. Do you think that artificial intelligences will one day be made as intelligent as human brains? Do you think such intelligences should have rights? ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE.mp3

I do think that one day, artificial intelligences will be as intelligent as human brains and I think they will actually necessarily exceed human intelligence at that point. Anyone who is familiar with the work of Ray Kurzweil knows that he has studied this question in depth and really, human intelligence boils down to simply connections between neurons and chemical reactions between those neurons — and that is it. That makes up the sum total of human intelligence.

I’ve heard all sorts of other theories, claiming that there is some sort of "ghost in the machine," that brains might be receiving stations for some sort of divine intelligence or some sort of supernatural Meta-intelligence, something that stands behind the human brain. I am unconvinced. I say prove it. People who make such claims, in fact, have no way of proving anything of the sort, while the evidence mounts, day by day, year by year of the physical causality of human consciousness.

As we get deeper and deeper in understanding how the human brain actually does work, we realize that the sheer number of neuronal connections is plainly high enough to explain the full depth and range of human intelligence. Functional MRI shows us that different areas of the brain, activate when different emotional states occur. In some cases, a single neuron can be related to a single concept. In addition to the direct brain observation, there is tremendous work being done in the simulation of neuronal activity.

At the Ecole Polytechnique in Lausanne, Switzerland, a project is underway to model a single neo-cortical column. Using the IBM Blue Gene/L computer with 8000 processors, the simulation will be conducted over the next couple of years. Once the simulated neocortical column can be shown to be functionally equivalent to the organic one, work can then proceed to simulate groups of columns, and finally the entire brain. This project should coincide with the development ever faster hardware, in a similar manner to which the human genome project benefited from vast computational improvements during its course.

There is, what is called the easy problem of consciousness, and then there is the hard problem. The "easy problem" has to do with the function of physical neurons, and their connection to emotions and the working of the mind. The "hard problem" is how that chemically induced interaction between neurons gives rise to a sense of self-awareness, to experience. How do molecules working together and interacting make us feel as if we have an ego, and a distinct self, separate from others?

I’m confident both problems will be solved. Soon after 2020, we will begin to interact with conscious machines. At this point, we will have crossed a threshold. We need to be very careful between now and then what we choose to build.

[If we want to create machines to become our servants I don’t see any problem with that. This could be anything from an automatic vacuum cleaner to a butler that may walk around the house serving drinks or keeping things organized. From past experience with the VCR and the internet, we know that porn and sex always drives commercialization of new technology. I can see people buying life-like sexual surrogates, which might at first amount to little more than sophisticated automatic sex-dolls. As greater levels of sentience become possible, we may want to consider carefully how much sentience we want to build in to such creatures. A clear distinction would emerge between mechanical robots developed to perform routine tasks, and robots specifically optimized for cognition and self-awareness. The second category should not be allowed to be considered property, and will need to be ultimately given the full rights and responsibilities of a human being.]

Because if we build a conscious machine, it will necessarily have rights. Rights are based on sentience. If any entity, biological or otherwise, can feel pleasure and pain and tell us about it, it needs to be respected as a fully conscious individual.

Comments (3 comments)

Matt Crandall / July 15th, 2006, 11:51 pm / #1

You know, whats interesting about this whole discussion is the concept that sentience does indeed confer rights. While I agree with you, I think you’d find many people, religious or otherwise, who would argue that sentience alone is not enough to deserve rights. For millenia, indeed up until the 19th and 20th centuries, it was consciousness, not sentience, that defined rights arguments. Earlier thinkers on animal cruelty used arguments based on the connection between animals and humans, not on animals standalone rights (such as Pythagoras, probably one of the oldest to defend rights for animals, and strictly because he believed in the transmigration of human souls to animals, not because of any inherent value in animals themselves).

The point is that you may find it a hard sell, even to this day, to get people to accept sentience as the basis for bringing animals into the moral sphere… people have been trying for years, with limited success.

Sorry to be so pessimistic! :)


Matt Crandall / July 15th, 2006, 11:53 pm / #2

Ok, so my last reply was all over the board, let me clarify: I think you may have a hard time convincing people that machines are truly conscious, even if you do convince them that they are sentient, and THAT is the problem with bringing them into the moral sphere.

No more replying at night, it just doesn’t work when i’m this tired!


BlackSun / July 17th, 2006, 9:08 am / #3

This will probably only happen after machines can pass the Turing test. (Where a panel of humans cannot tell the difference between the machine responses and human responses to a text-based chat.)

It would be hard to deny such intelligence. I know people will try. But we have 14-23 years to figure it out. (If you believe two of Kurzweil’s more important projections: 2020 for computer-brain computational equivalence, and 2029 to pass the Turing test.)

The question of animals will also be augmented by technology. Imagine adding cognitive circuits to animal brains so that they could tell us how they were feeling. It would be really hard to deny rights at that point.

Anyway, you are right about the gap between accelerating technology and societies’ ability to accept its implications.

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