Your brain invents its own code. Can we create an A.I. mind like that?

When it comes to creating minds, cognitive scientist Joscha Bach explains where we are with artificial intelligence, and where we need to be.

Technology & Innovation

A.I. can perform tricks, but can it truly think? Cognitive scientist Joscha Back explains where we are on the path to artificial general intelligence, and where we need to be. The human mind can invent its own code and create models of arbitrary things—including itself—but we don't know how to build a mind quite like that just yet. To achieve A.G.I., will programmers have to re-create every single functional mechanism of the human brain? There are many schools of thought, but Bach's perspective is that the tinkering may not have to be as granular as many assume. Creating a mind may even be simpler (relatively speaking) than creating a single cell. Why? Because the human brain, says Bach, is less like clockwork and more like a cappuccino. "You mix the right ingredients and then you let it percolate and then it forms a particular kind of structure. So I do think, because nature pulls it off pretty well in most of the cases, that even though a brain probably needs more complexity than a cappuccino—dramatically more—it’s going to be much simpler than a very complicated machine like a cell,' he says. Joscha Bach's latest book is Principles of Synthetic Intelligence PSI: An Architecture of Motivated Cognition (Oxford Series on Cognitive Models and Architectures)

How the Brain Could Succeed Where Gods, Monotheism, and Ideologies All Failed

Religious skepticism birthed the modern world, but its ideologies have largely failed to deliver. Could neuroscience cure the ails of human society?

Mind & Brain

Religious skepticism birthed the modern world, but its ideologies have largely failed to deliver. Could neuroscience cure the ails of human society? In this fascinatingly brief tour of world history, Joscha Bach suggests that us moderns still toil in the mud of feudalist peasants. We talk highly of resilient rights and institutions, but resiliency against what? Ourselves, it seems. If we turn our gaze to the structure of the human brain, however, we discover a system that is remarkably effective. So what if human institutions were modeled on natural, organic systems? The results might be something entirely new, argues Bach.

Get paid to be a good human being? That's the future AI will deliver

A.I. will bring a series of social and financial changes, and it will force us to confront a problem we've been avoiding for much too long, says Joscha Bach.

Technology & Innovation

To know whether or not we should fear A.I., we first have to understand how it will behave in the world. Cognitive scientist Joscha Bach believes A.I. has the potential to mistreat humans—but no worse than big corporations already do. The future won't filled with Roombas and anthropomorphized house-help robots, he says, so a physical threat is not the main concern. A.I. will take the form of intelligent systems that operate as corporations, and they will adopt the ethics of whatever company builds them. "If we want to have these systems built in such a way that they treat us nicely you have to start right now. And it seems to be a very hard problem to do so," Bach says. And yet he appears to be optimistic about society's other main A.I. fear: job automation. He frames it like this: if a job is you selling the best years of your life to a corporation, automating as many manual tasks as possible is really a release from that contract—but how will we afford to live, and what will we do with our days? Many think Universal Basic Income, but Bach sees it a little differently: mass public employment. Pay people to be good humans: good at teaching and at raising their children. Pay them to be good scientists, good philosophers, good architects and chefs — the things that make us most human. Job automation will also force us to confront one of our most difficult and uncomfortable problems: that we are living in an age of abundance, but fail to distribute resources so that everyone can live a decent life. "It might turn out to be a very good thing if you are forced... to address this problem," he says. Joscha Bach's latest book is Principles of Synthetic Intelligence.

Do Humans Have Free Will, or Are We Programmed by Society?

Humans are a programmable species, and we live inside the most ancient operating system of all — ideology.


For many years, Joscha Bach could not understand why humans flock so strongly towards religion and ideology. Having grown up in communist East Germany and seeing the people around him buy into nationalistic narratives—that were to him obviously untruthful—made no sense. It was only when the wall came down that he came to understand that people everywhere are buying into various false narratives—as of 2015, 34% of Americans still reject evolution completely. The drive to believe whatever instructions come from above you is not a cognitive error, Bach realized then, but an evolutionary feature—as powerful as it is problematic. The ability for large groups of people to follow one set of rules, to cooperate, is how Homo sapiens established agricultural societies, and is ultimately how we outcompeted other now long-gone nomadic hominin groups. We are a programmable species, says Bach, and we need to belong and conform to a larger entity to survive. As such, Bach sees the debate surrounding free will not as a question of determinism or incompatibilism, but of social conditioning. Perhaps the free will relates to decision-making over physics: are you really free to act in a way that is true, or are you bound by a social code of responsibility that runs thousands of years deep in your genetics? Joscha Bach's latest book is Principles of Synthetic Intelligence.