Artificial intelligence (AI) is everywhere, in the news, TV commercials, and countless movies and shows, but what exactly does the term mean? The best way to describe it is to first state what it is not. It is not Skynet or HAL 9000, at least not yet.
AI, simply put, is the capability of machines to mimic cognition, primarily learning and problem solving. Over time the scope of what AI is has changed, so that previously cutting-edge tasks, such as text recognition, are dropped as those functions become routine. Optical character recognition (OCR) is now found in everything from Adobe Acrobat to Google Translate on your smartphone. Today, speech recognition, strategic games, and driverless cars are all considered AI but in time will also likely be dropped from the definition. Cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter summed it up best saying “AI is whatever hasn’t been done yet.”
While these tasks seem amazing to us there are many tasks we take for granted that AI cannot perform. The CAPTCHA program you see on websites is incredibly simple to us but fools even complex AI. Jokes, satire, and non-verbal communication also confound the most powerful AI systems. Consciousness is the missing link.
Consciousness, or self-awareness, is our ability to feel, to have emotions. AI cannot like pimento cheese or the Beatles; it can only analyze the component parts, i.e. the ingredients, tone, instruments, and so forth. It feels no sadness or love or envy. There is no soul. The day that AI does achieve this will be the dawn of artificial consciousness (AC).
There is no consensus among experts on the timetable for artificial consciousness. Estimates range from a few years, to decades, and on to a thousand years from now. Dr. Roger Schank of Northwestern University questions whether it is even possible. “Are dogs conscious? It seems so, but we really don’t know what that question means. We assume conscious awareness in people, but not in machines. We are fleshists. There is no way to build something when we don’t really know what it is.”
Understanding AC means understanding our own brains and despite our technology and experience, the brain is still not well known. We possess consciousness but it is not necessary biologically speaking, so why do we have it? The old (false) axiom that we use only 10% of our brain should rather be we only understand 10% of our brain. An average brain contains 86 billion neurons, each with between 1000 and 10,000 synapses, meaning that the cerebral cortex alone has 125 trillion synapses.
So, how does all this relate to those TV ads and news reports? In the case of advertisements, they almost always refer to artificial intelligence without consciousness. A Microsoft ad now running (as of March 2018) touts the power of technology and what it will enable you to do. In it, rapper Common, proclaims “We have mixed reality that changes how we see the world and AI empowering us to change the world we see.”
Commercials for IBM’s Watson have been a fixture on television for several years and exhibit numerous ways that AI can benefit mankind. One of the more prominent examples is its use in the medical field. Watson, and similar systems, can sort through unimaginable amounts of data from an MRI scan and distill that down into something a doctor can use in her diagnosis. AI provides the doctor with more information but the creativity in interpreting that information still rests solely in the human mind.
The news stories raising the alarm over killer robots and our possible extinction refer to artificial consciousness. For AI to destroy us it must have free will, i.e. choice, and that day has not yet come. Artificial consciousness is artificial intelligence but AI is not necessarily conscious. In the Terminator movies the villain is Skynet, a single artificial consciousness that decides humans will seek to contain it and thus all humans must be eliminated. In the real world that is certainly a possibility but it is just as likely that it will coexist peacefully with us and propel mankind to heights previously unimaginable. Another plausible scenario is a world with multiple, perhaps billions, of independent AI’s with varied opinions, likes, dislikes, and worldviews no different than us.
An interesting side note to the nature of artificial consciousness is the manner in which it arrives. In the “spontaneous” scenario, humans will type in the necessary code and then with one keystroke, AC pops into existence. Conversely, we might merely provide the environment for consciousness to organically mature. With enough processing power, access to sensory data, and ability to create new algorithms, an AI might evolve on its own without direct interference.
Whatever the future holds for artificial intelligence, consciousness might remain a mystery no matter how advanced we become, the divine spark forever beyond our comprehension. Just ask a theoretical physicist what is beyond our universe.