My Problem with AI

It’s obvious to anybody that the mind does much more than solve problems.

My argument with the direction that AI has taken is that borrowing from the standard approaches in cognitive psychology and experimental psychology, AI had tended to say, “we want to know about thinking, then we’ll move onto emotion, or maybe consciousness.” 


Thinking is what we want to do.  The really important thing the mind does, the important activity the mind does is think, solve problems.  A lot of people in AI used problem-solving as an equivalent of thinking. 

They said, “Here’s what we’re working on.  We’re working on artificial thought, artificial intelligence, problem-solving software.”  But it’s obvious to anybody that the mind does much more than solve problems.  It’s very rare for anybody to go about solving a problem formally. 

Certainly we don’t’ do a lot of mathematical problem-solving, or problem sets in physicists most of the time. And to an extent that we are confronted with problems to solve, we almost always first have recourse to experience and we think, “well, what did I do the last time?”

In a more fundamental way, it is obvious to anybody that if I am working at my computer and I get tired and I lean back and look out the window and just watch the passing scene, I’m still thinking, my mind hasn’t shut down.  I watch what’s happening. I react in more subtle cognitive ways to what I see.  It’s obvious that when I get tired, when my mind starts to drift, when I move into the free associative state that was studied by Freud that we know precedes falling asleep - free association is a kind of thinking also. 

My mind doesn’t shut off, but I’m certainly not solving problems. I’m wandering around.  And we also know that when we sleep, we think also.  Sleep thought is different than waking thought.  Sleep thought is not solving problems in mathematics, or solving any kind of problems in a methodical way.  Sleep thought is image thought, for the most part, and sleep thought is hallucinatory.  I see things that aren’t there.  

So we need to understand the connection, the spectrum that connects wide awake, focused, alert problem-solving type of thought with what happens to my mind as I get tired, as my focus decreases, as I approach sleep.  Actually, the brain goes through several oscillations like this during the day, but there’s a continuous spectrum connecting my most focused, my sharpest kind of analytical thought, the sharpest of which I am capable of on the one hand, and the lowest focused kind of thought in which my mind drifts and ultimately I find myself asleep and dreaming.  

The field of Artificial Intelligence had studied only the very top end of the spectrum and still tends to study only the very top end.  It tends to say, what is thinking, it’s this highly focused, wide awake, alert, problem-solving state of mind.  But not only is that not the whole story, but the problem, the biggest unsolved problem that has tended to haunt philosophy of mind, cognitive psychology, AI, is creativity. 

People have always been fascinated about what makes for a creative person?  What explains a creative leap, which is a well defined psychological event?  People know when it happens to them.  There is general agreement that to be creative is to have the ability to invent new analogies, to connect two things that are not obviously related. But once you have made the connection, you can see there is a relationship and other people can see the relationship too and creativity flow from that.  

In Their Own Words is recorded in Big Think's studio.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

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New fossils suggest human ancestors evolved in Europe, not Africa

Experts argue the jaws of an ancient European ape reveal a key human ancestor.

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  • The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
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Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.