Intelligence is not Artificial

Why the Singularity is not Coming any Time Soon And Other Meditations on the Post-Human Condition and the Future of Intelligence

by piero scaruffi
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(These are excerpts from my book "Intelligence is not Artificial")

The Proliferation of Appliances, Intelligent and not

If we structure the world appropriately, it will be easy to build machines that can board planes, exchange money, take a bus, drive a car, cross a street and so on. Automated services have existed since at least the invention of the waterwheel. We even have machines that dispense money (ATMs), machines that wash clothes (washing machines), machines that control the temperature of a room (thermostats), and machines that control the speed of a car (cruise controls).

When we design robots, we are simply building more appliances. In the near future we might witness a multiplication of appliances, disguised and marketed as "robots" simply because the word "robot" is becoming fashionable: iRobot's vacuuming robot Roomba, Moley Robotics' robotic chef in Britain that, installed on top of your stove, cooks dinner for you; the robotic waiters of the Robot Restaurant in Harbin (northeastern China); Infinium Robotics' drone waiters, that deliver meals flying over the heads of the customers, in Singapore; MIT's robotic bartender; UC Berkeley's robot that folds towels; etc.

The ATM is more precise than a bank clerk (and works much longer hours) but we don't think of it as "intelligent". Ditto for the washing machine that is capable of all sorts of washing techniques. That's because they were introduced at a time when it was not popular to market them as Artificial Intelligence. If the washing machine was invented today, it would certainly be presented as the latest achievement in robotics.

Enthusiastic fans of automation predict that "soon" (how soon?) everything that humans do will be done by machines; but they rarely explain what is the point of making machines for everything we do. Do we really want machines that fall asleep or urinate? There are very human functions that people don't normally associate with "intelligence". They just happen to be things that human bodies do. We swing arms when we walk, but we don't consider "swinging arms while walking" a necessary feature of intelligent beings. The moment we attempt to design an "intelligent" machine (or collection of machines) that can mimic the entire repertory of our "intelligent" functions we run into the enumeration problem: which function qualifies as "intelligent"? Typical human activities include: forgetting where we left the mobile phone, eating fast food, watching stand-up comedy, catching a flue when attacked by viruses and, yes, frequently, urinating.

We instinctively envision a hierarchy of tasks, from "not intelligent at all" to "very intelligent", and we assume that the latter are the ones that make the difference. However, that ranking is not very objective: why a washing machine is not intelligent given that relatively few humans can wash clothes, whereas a cat-recognizing program is (given that virtually every human, no matter how dumb, can recognize a cat, and so can countless animals). Statistically, it would seem that washing clothes should be more special than cat-recognizing programs.

The current excitement about machines is due to the fact that (it is claimed) they are beginning to perform tasks that were exclusive to human beings. This is actually a very weak claim: the first washing machine was capable of performing a task that had been exclusive to human beings until the day before. Implicit in these claims is the idea that there is something that makes some tasks qualitatively more "special" than washing clothes, but it is difficult to articulate what this "special" quality would be. What is truly unique/special about human intelligence? Each machine performs for us a task that we used to do manually. Which tasks are so "special" that they deserve to be called "intelligent" is far from agreed upon.

And, finally, machines that resemble human beings (that smile, cry, walk and even say a few words) have existed for a long time and they are usually sold in toy stores and aimed at children. We can certainly create more sophisticated toys, like toys that recognize cats, but the claim that these toys will have anything to do with human intelligence needs some explaining.

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