Artificial general intelligence: The domain of the patient, philosophical coder

Sure, some expert-level knowledge is needed if you want to program artificial intelligence. But AI expert Ben Goertzel posits that you also need something that Guns N' Roses sang about: a lil' patience.

Ben Goertzel: My cousin who lives in Hong Kong is a game programmer, and he loves what I’m doing but he just tells me when we discuss it, “I need immediate gratification.” And he codes something and he sees a game character do something cool, right? And if you need that, if you really need to see something cool happen every day AGI is not for you. In AGI you may work six months and nothing interesting happens. And then something really interesting happens. So I think if someone doesn’t have that kind of stubborn, pigheaded persistence I will tend to employ them doing, for example, data analysis, because that gives immediate gratification. You get a data set from a customer, you run a machine learning algorithm on it and you get a result which is interesting. The customer is happy. Then you go on to the next data set.

And if you explain the different types of work available actually most people are pretty good at choosing what won’t drive them crazy. So some people are like “Yeah, I want to do stuff that seems cool every day.” And other people are like “Well, I really want to understand how thinking works. I want to understand how cognition and vision work together, and that’s much more interesting to me than applying an existing vision algorithm to solve someone’s problem.”

So I tend to throw the issue at the potential employee or volunteer themselves, and sometimes that works, sometimes it doesn’t. But I trust them to know themselves better than I know them anyway.

There are many different types and levels of problems that one encounters in doing AI work, and there are sort of low-level algorithmic problems or software design problems which are solved via clever tricks. And then there are deeper problems, like how do you architect a perception system? How should perception and cognition work together in an AI system? If a system knows one language how do you leverage that knowledge to help it learn another language? I find personally with these deeper problems this is the kind of thing you solve while you were like walking the dog in the forest or taking a shower or driving down the highway or something.

And it seems to be that the people who make headway on these deeper problems have the personality type that carries the problem in their head all the time. Like you’ll think about this thing when you go to sleep, you’re still thinking about it when you woke up, and you just keep chewing on this issue a hundred times a day. It could be for days or weeks or years, or even decades. And then the solution pops up for you.

And not everyone has the inclination or personality to be obsessive at sort of keeping a problem like an egg in your mind, in your focus, until the solution hatches out. But that’s a particular cognitive style or habit or skill which I see in everyone I know who’s really making headway on the AGI problem.

Sure, some expert-level knowledge is needed if you want to program artificial intelligence. But AI expert Ben Goertzel posits that you also need something that Guns N' Roses sang about: a lil' patience. If you want instant gratification, this isn't the line of work for you. Ben's most recent book is AGI Revolution: An Inside View of the Rise of Artificial General Intelligence.

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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

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