Saturday, February 04, 2012

why is a "smart" species like you humans so far up the creek?

QuestionEverything | Many years ago I believed, as do most people today, that intelligence was the key to solving all of mankind's problems (read: innovation, assumed by technocornucopians to overcome all problems). I spent no small amount of my life pursuing understanding of what intelligence is, and how the brain produces the abilities to solve complex problems. My childhood was spent watching the unfolding explosion in science and technology that culminated in, for example, the landing of humans on the moon. I grew up knowing there were these wondrous electronic brains called computers. Later at a still impressionable age, once the size and prices of computers came down, I got my chance to play with them. I fell instantly in love with a machine that I could program to rapidly solve problems that would have taken me days to accomplish. And I came across the works of Alan Turing regarding the idea that a computing device might be able to emulate human intelligence, dubbed “Artificial Intelligence” (AI). The “Turing Test” posited that we should accord intelligence to machines if in a blind conversation with a real human, the latter could not detect that s/he was talking to a machine. I set out to see how such a wonder might be accomplished.

Many years later I managed to earn a PhD in computer science by programming a computer to emulate not human intelligence, but the intelligence of a neuron with its adaptive synaptic connections. These, I assembled into a computational model of a snail brain, an admittedly moronic one, and showed how such a brain could control behavior and, more importantly, emulate animal-like (biomimic) learning through Pavlovian-style conditioning. Putting this brain into a computer controlling a small Braitenberg robot, I could show how the brain learned features of its experienced environment and adjusted its behavior to conform to the stimuli of that environment (run from pain-causing stimuli and approach rewarding stimuli). That academic exercise started me digging deeper into how biological neural networks in real brains work. I read every book I could get ahold of and many journal articles on various aspects of neuroscience trying to understand how it worked. The obvious goal of AI was to produce human-like intelligence in a machine. The strong version of this program even contemplated producing a conscious machine (e.g. HAL 9000 in A Space Odyssey). The field of AI has evolved from the earliest days and it has produced some useful computational products. And even though Deep Blue (IBM) beat world chess master Garry Kasporov and Watson (also IBM) beat the all-time Jeopardy champs at that game, the fact is that computers still only simulate some aspects of intelligence, and then only in limited expertise domains.

Throughout the evolution of the field, the idea of a machine intelligence spawned considerable interest among psychologists, neurobiologists, and philosophers. Debates about just what intelligence was in the first place were generated each time AI seemed to make progress. Perhaps one of the most important contributions of the field was to show just how different real brains were from the way computers process data. And with each new accomplishment of computers, trying to master tasks that had previously been thought to require intelligence, it became clearer that the human kind of intelligence was far more complex and nuanced than our earlier models accounted for. My own claim that my robot emulated a “moronic” snail might have been valid for a very low level of intelligence, but it only served to underscore how far our computational approaches were from the real thing as far as human-level intelligence.

In any case my initial forays into AI via trying to simulate learning phenomena in neuron-like structures got me hooked on the notion of understanding the real deal. Both psychology and neurobiology had made such important strides toward grasping the nature of human intelligence and consciousness that I essentially ceased worrying about AI and turned my attentions more fully to the pursuit of real human intelligence as an object of study.

As much as has been elucidated, especially over the last few decades, about human intelligence, most of the world still holds that intelligence is our greatest mental achievement. Coupled with its twin mental capacity for creativity, intelligence is seen as the epitome of cognition; a genius is one who has ample portions of both compared with ordinary humans. The human brain is held to provide cleverness in solving complex problems. We often equate intelligence with rational thinking (e.g. deductive logic) and hold accomplishments in mathematics or science as evidence that we are an incredibly smart species. The mere fact of the existence of our technological prowes proves that we are smarter than any mere ape.

But there is a fly in the ointment of this palliative thought. If you try to objectively account for the state of the world today as the result of our being so smart you have to ask a very important question: If we are so smart, why do we humans find ourselves in such a terrible predicament today? Our species is facing a constellation of extraordinary and complex problems for which no one can suggest feasible solutions (see below). The irony is that these problems exist because our cleverness, our being so smart, created them. Our activities, clever as we have thought them to be, are the causes of the problems, which, collectively, threaten the very existence of humanity! This seems a paradox. We were smart enough to create the problems, but we're not smart enough to fix them. My own conclusion was that maybe smartness wasn't enough. Maybe something even more important to cognition had been missing that allowed this predicament to develop. That has been the thought that has been motivating my own search for an answer.


nanakwame said...

Nicely written will read the entire page -   All life is problem solving Karl Popper 

Vinz Klortho said...

Like the old expression "If you're so smart, why aren't you rich?":-)
I think there is a disconnect here.  We may be smart enough to solve at least some of our problems, but a system has evolved that allows "someone" to create an environment of "regulatory capture" to facilitate creation of the problems in the first place, silence discussion of viable solutions, starve any institution that studies alternative views, and kill or deny funding to any attempts to implement real solutions.

As "someone" (maybe Will Rogers?) said "It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it."

CNu said...

 Welcome to the spot VK...,

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