What it really takes to become an AGI programmer

AI expert Ben Goertzel is no stranger to building out-of-this-world artificial intelligence, and he wants others to join him in this new and very exciting field.

Ben Goertzel: There’s aspects, yes. AGI has aspects of computer science, mathematics, engineering, philosophy of mind, linguistics, neuroscience. It’s quite cross-disciplinary, and the education system isn’t really that way. It’s more that way in the U.S. than anywhere else on the planet actually. That’s a strength the U.S. has. Here as an undergraduate, you can at least take courses in every department. And in many countries, that’s not true.

But even in the U.S., the education system is not nearly as cross-disciplinary as it should be for grappling with a problem like AGI or with say quantum computing or nanotechnology or a lot of other cutting edge things.

So what that means is if someone wants to really work in one of these cutting-edge topics that has the highest probability of transforming the world, if they want to work on these things in the core capacity, they have to take their own time to study a bunch of other fields that they didn’t learn in school. And that also takes time. You can’t do that by reading a blog post. I mean you’ve got to, you know, take out a neuroscience textbook and go through it step by step. And not everyone has the patience for that.

But again some people do, and I’d say Coursera, Udacity, and MIT, the many universities that have put their courseware online have been a huge, huge asset in this process because those help lead people through the process of learning information from all the different disciplines that they need to attack something like AGI. We found these online courses incredibly useful in what we’ve been doing in Ethiopia.

So in 2013, I co-founded with two others Ethiopia’s first AI and robotics development company. So we do some original R&D, some projects aimed at helping the African situation. Then a bunch of software and robotics outsourcing. The company is called iCog Labs based in Addis Ababa. And we have an internship program which we use for recruiting.

So we take dozens of undergrad students each year and what we do is we give them some hands-on lessons in OpenCog and various other AI tools. We also have each of them take like seven Coursera courses. And they go through them very quickly and they teach them neuroscience, computational linguistics, bioinformatics, machine learning, a bunch of topics that are not offered in the university there.

And this works much better than giving them a bunch of textbooks to read because it gives them a process and a community to enter into. It not only teaches them information but it weeds out people who don’t have the persistence to slog through stuff from a bunch of different disciplines and really stretch their brain in a deeper cross-disciplinary way.

So yeah, I’d say, as with everything else there’s pluses and minuses all tangled up, right? I mean the modern way of doing things in some ways eliminates people’s attention span because nobody has to think for themselves. They immediately look up the answer on the internet or download something instead of trying to solve a problem themselves.

On the other hand, there’s so much high-quality educational material out there together with supportive communities for people who do want to plunge in deeper and get a more foundational understanding.

But what we do in OpenCog is we’ve worked out a system where each of the cognitive processes can help the other one out when it gets stuck in some combinatorial explosion problem. So if a deep neural network trying to perceive things gets confused because it’s dark or it’s looking at something it never saw before, well maybe the reasoning engine can come in and do some inference to cut through that confusion.

If logical reasoning is getting confused and doesn’t know what step to take next because there’s just so many possibilities out there and not much information about them, well, maybe you fish into your sensory-motor memory and you use deep learning to visualize something you saw before, and that gives you a clue of how to pare through the many possibilities that the logic engine is seeing.

Now you can model this kind of cognitive synergy mathematically using a branch of mathematics called category theory, which is something I’ve been working on lately.

But what’s really interesting more so is to build a system that manifests this and achieves general intelligence as a result, and that’s what we’re doing in the OpenCog project.

AI expert Ben Goertzel is no stranger to building out-of-this-world artificial intelligence, and he wants others to join him in this new and very exciting field. That's why he co-founded iCog Labs in Ethiopia, and he's training people not through textbooks but online courses offered by the likes of MIT, Coursera, and Udacity. That way, they can learn about the many different skill sets needed to build AI much faster than a traditional educational route. Ben's latest 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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