Will AI Ever See the World As Humans Do?

AI won't really resemble humanoids. Instead, AI will create a world that countries and large companies can live in.

JOSCHA BACH: I think right now everybody is already perceiving that this is the decade of AI. And there is nothing like artificial intelligence that drives the digitization of the world. Historically artificial intelligence has always been the pioneer battallion of computer science. 

When something was new and untested it was done in the field of AI, because it was seen as something that requires intelligence in some way, a new way of modeling things. Intelligence can be understood to a very large degree as the ability to model new systems, to model new problems. 

And so it’s natural that even narrow AI is about making models of the world. For instance our current generation of deep-learning systems are already modeling things. They’re not modeling things quite in the same way with the same power as human minds can do it—They’re mostly classifiers, not simulators of complete worlds. But they’re slowly getting there, and by making these models we are, of course, digitizing things. We are making things accessible in data domains. We are making these models accessible to each other by computers and by AI systems.

And AI systems provide extensions to all our minds. Already now Google is something like my exo-cortex. It’s something that allows me to act as vast resources of information that get integrated in the way I think and extend my abilities. If I forget how to use a certain command in a programming language, it’s there at my fingertips, and I entirely rely on this like every other programmer on this planet. This is something that is incredibly powerful, and was not possible when we started out programming, when we had to store everything in our own brains. 

I think consciousness is a very difficult concept to understand because we mostly know it by reference. We can point at it. But it’s very hard for us to understand what it actually is. 

And I think at this point the best model that I’ve come up with—what we mean by consciousness—it is a model of a model of a model. That is: our new cortex makes a model of our interactions with the environment. And part of our new cortex makes a model of that model, that is, it tries to find out how we interact with the environment so we can take this into account when we interaction with the environment. And then you have a model of this model of our model which means we have something that represents the features of that model, and we call this the Self. 

And the self is integrated with something like an intentional protocol. So we have a model of the things that we attended to, the things that we became aware of: why we process things and why we interact with the environment. And this protocol, this memory of what we attended to is what we typically associate with consciousness. So in some sense we are not conscious in actuality in the here and now, because that’s not really possible for a process that needs to do many things over time in order to retrieve items from memory and process them and do something with them. 

Consciousness is actually a memory. It’s a construct that is reinvented in our brain several times a minute. 

And when we think about being conscious of something it means that we have a model of that thing that makes it operable, that we can use. 

You are not really aware of what the world is like. The world out there is some weird quantum graph. It’s something that we cannot possibly really understand —first of all because we as observers cannot really measure it. We don’t have access to the full bit-vector of the universe. 

What we get access to is a few bits that our senses can measure in the environment. And from these bits our brain tries to derive a function that allows us to predict the next observable bits. 

So in some sense all these concepts that we have in our mind, all these experiences that we have—sounds, people, ideas and so on— are not features of the world out there. There are no sounds in the world out there, no colors and so on. These are all features of our mental representations. They’re used to predict the next set of bits that are going to hit our retina or our eardrums. 

I think the main reason why AI was started was that it was a science to understand the mind. It was meant to take over where psychology stopped making progress. Sometime after Piaget, at this point in the 1950s psychology was in this thrall of behaviorism. That means that it only focused on observable behavior. And in some sense psychology has not fully recovered from this. Even now “thinking” is not really a term in psychology, and we don’t have good ways to study thoughts and mental processes. What we study is human behavior in psychology. And in neuroscience we mostly study brains, nervous systems. 

My answer is something different, in between. There are what brains do and there are the reason for our behavior. And this means there is some information processing that is facilitated by brains and that serves to produce particular kinds of behavior. And this information process then can be studied with the science of information processing, which happens to be computer science. So AI was by no accident started as a subfield of computer science. 

But one of its major interests was always the understanding of what minds are, what we are, what’s our relationship to the universe. 

And I think you can argue that along the way AI has lost its focus because there were more obvious benefits with automation, it was much easier to make progress. And many of the paradigms that needed to be understood and invented were not available in the first decades of the field.

Right at the beginning of the field of artificial intelligence people asked themselves, “How do we recognize that a system is intelligent?” 

And often in this context we think about the Turing test. The idea of the Turing test is that you build a computer that can convince its audience that it is intelligent. But when we look for intelligence we actually look for something else. We are looking for systems that are performing a Turing test on us. 

What that means is that the system checks what we are conscious of. It’s what we do with each other all the time. We try to find out, “What does the other person think? What did the other person understand? Which parts of the world does this person have consciousness of? What parts of the world is this person able to model?” 

And when we will have built an AI that is truly intelligent we’ll probably recognize its intelligence, in a way, by the thing asking us and checking whether we are intelligent and conscious of the same things that it understands by itself. 

It’s because the system is able to understand that itself is a mind, that it’s conscious of certain things and not of others, and the same must be true for its interlocutors.

I do think that when we build a system that is able to implement the same functionality as our brain and has to perform similar tasks that it would have similar consciousness to ours. 

In practice that’s rarely going to be the case. The AIs that we are going to build in the future are probably not going to be humanoid robots for the most part. It’s going to be intelligent systems. So AIs are not going to be something that lives next to us like a household robot or something that then tries to get human rights and throw off the yoke of its oppression, like it’s a household slave or something. 

Instead it’s going to be, for instance, corporations, nation states and so on that are going to use for their intelligent tasks machine learning and computer models that are more and more intricate and self-modeling and become aware of what they are doing. 

So we are going to live inside of these intelligent systems, not next to them. We’re going to have a relationship to them that’s similar to the gut flora has to our organism and to our mind. We are going to be a small part of it in some sense. 

So it’s very hard to map this to a human experience because the environment that these AIs are going to interact with is going to be very different from ours.

Also I don’t think that these AIs will be conscious of things in the same sense as we are, because we are only conscious of things that require our attention and we are only aware of the things that we cannot do automatically. 

Most of the things that we do don’t require our attention. Most of the simple stuff in our body is regulated as feedback loops. And most of the other stuff is just going on by itself because we have entrained our brain with useful routines to deal with them. And only when there is a conflict between these routines, then we become aware and something gets our attention and we start experiencing it and integrating into our protocol. 

And I think there is an argument to be made that even if we build human-like intelligence that is self-perfecting it might become so good at its tasks that it’s rarely going to be conscious of what it’s doing because it can do all automatically.

 

Can AI dream? Can it love? Can it "think" in the same way we do? The short answer is: no. AI doesn't need to bog itself down with simple human tasks like love or dreams or fear. The AI brain posits itself in a much grander scale first and then works backwards to the more human way of thinking. Joscha Bach suggests that much rather than humanoid robots, we are more likely to see AI super-brains developed by countries and larger companies. Imagine a computer brain that is designed to keep the stock market balanced, or detect earthquakes an ocean away that could sound alarms on our shores... that sort of thing.

It's a big concept to wrap our human heads around. But as AI technology develops and grows by the day, it is important to understand where the technology is headed. Think less Rosie The Robot Maid from The Jetsons and more the computer from War Games.


Joscha Bach's latest book is Principles of Synthetic Intelligence.

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Freud is renowned, but his ideas are ill-substantiated

The Oedipal complex, repressed memories, penis envy? Sigmund Freud's ideas are far-reaching, but few have withstood the onslaught of empirical evidence.

Mind & Brain
  • Sigmund Freud stands alongside Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein as one of history's best-known scientists.
  • Despite his claim of creating a new science, Freud's psychoanalysis is unfalsifiable and based on scant empirical evidence.
  • Studies continue to show that Freud's ideas are unfounded, and Freud has come under scrutiny for fabricating his most famous case studies.

Few thinkers are as celebrated as Sigmund Freud, a figure as well-known as Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein. Neurologist and the founder of psychoanalysis, Freud's ideas didn't simply shift the paradigms in academia and psychotherapy. They indelibly disseminated into our cultural consciousness. Ideas like transference, repression, the unconscious iceberg, and the superego are ubiquitous in today's popular discourse.

Despite this renown, Freud's ideas have proven to be ill-substantiated. Worse, it is now believed that Freud himself may have fabricated many of his results, opportunistically disregarding evidence with the conscious aim of promoting preferred beliefs.

"[Freud] really didn't test his ideas," Harold Takooshian, professor of psychology at Fordham University, told ATI. "He was just very persuasive. He said things no one said before, and said them in such a way that people actually moved from their homes to Vienna and study with him."

Unlike Darwin and Einstein, Freud's brand of psychology presents the impression of a scientific endeavor but ultimately lack two of vital scientific components: falsification and empirical evidence.

Psychoanalysis

Freud's therapeutic approach may be unfounded, but at least it was more humane than other therapies of the day. In 1903, this patient is being treated in "auto-conduction cage" as a part of his electrotherapy. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The discipline of psychotherapy is arguably Freud's greatest contribution to psychology. In the post-World War II era, psychoanalysis spread through Western academia, influencing not only psychotherapy but even fields such as literary criticism in profound ways.

The aim of psychoanalysis is to treat mental disorders housed in the patient's psyche. Proponents believe that such conflicts arise between conscious thoughts and unconscious drives and manifest as dreams, blunders, anxiety, depression, or neurosis. To help, therapists attempt to unearth unconscious desires that have been blocked by the mind's defense mechanisms. By raising repressed emotions and memories to the conscious fore, the therapist can liberate and help the patient heal.

That's the idea at least, but the psychoanalytic technique stands on shaky empirical ground. Data leans heavily on a therapist's arbitrary interpretations, offering no safe guards against presuppositions and implicit biases. And the free association method offers not buttress to the idea of unconscious motivation.

Don't get us wrong. Patients have improved and even claimed to be cured thanks to psychoanalytic therapy. However, the lack of methodological rigor means the division between effective treatment and placebo effect is ill-defined.

Repressed memories

Sigmund Freud, circa 1921. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Nor has Freud's concept of repressed memories held up. Many papers and articles have been written to dispel the confusion surrounding repressed (aka dissociated) memories. Their arguments center on two facts of the mind neurologists have become better acquainted with since Freud's day.

First, our memories are malleable, not perfect recordings of events stored on a biological hard drive. People forget things. Childhood memories fade or are revised to suit a preferred narrative. We recall blurry gists rather than clean, sharp images. Physical changes to the brain can result in loss of memory. These realities of our mental slipperiness can easily be misinterpreted under Freud's model as repression of trauma.

Second, people who face trauma and abuse often remember it. The release of stress hormones imprints the experience, strengthening neural connections and rendering it difficult to forget. It's one of the reasons victims continue to suffer long after. As the American Psychological Association points out, there is "little or no empirical support" for dissociated memory theory, and potential occurrences are a rarity, not the norm.

More worryingly, there is evidence that people are vulnerable to constructing false memories (aka pseudomemories). A 1996 study found it could use suggestion to make one-fifth of participants believe in a fictitious childhood memory in which they were lost in a mall. And a 2007 study found that a therapy-based recollection of childhood abuse "was less likely to be corroborated by other evidence than when the memories came without help."

This has led many to wonder if the expectations of psychoanalytic therapy may inadvertently become a self-fulfilling prophecy with some patients.

"The use of various dubious techniques by therapists and counselors aimed at recovering allegedly repressed memories of [trauma] can often produce detailed and horrific false memories," writes Chris French, a professor of psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London. "In fact, there is a consensus among scientists studying memory that traumatic events are more likely to be remembered than forgotten, often leading to post-traumatic stress disorder."

The Oedipal complex

The Blind Oedipus Commending His Children to the Gods by Benigne Gagneraux. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

During the phallic stage, children develop fierce erotic feelings for their opposite-sex parent. This desire, in turn, leads them to hate their same-sex parent. Boys wish to replace their father and possess their mother; girls become jealous of their mothers and desire their fathers. Since they can do neither, they repress those feelings for fear of reprisal. If unresolved, the complex can result in neurosis later in life.

That's the Oedipal complex in a nutshell. You'd think such a counterintuitive theory would require strong evidence to back it up, but that isn't the case.

Studies claiming to prove the Oedipal complex look to positive sexual imprinting — that is, the phenomenon in which people choose partners with physical characteristics matching their same-sex parent. For example, a man's wife and mother have the same eye color, or woman's husband and father sport a similar nose.

But such studies don't often show strong correlation. One study reporting "a correction of 92.8 percent between the relative jaw width of a man's mother and that of [his] mates" had to be retracted for factual errors and incorrect analysis. Studies showing causation seem absent from the literature, and as we'll see, the veracity of Freud's own case studies supporting the complex is openly questioned today.

Better supported, yet still hypothetical, is the Westermarck effect. Also called reverse sexual imprinting, the effect predicts that people develop a sexual aversion to those they grow up in close proximity with, as a mean to avoid inbreeding. The effect isn't just shown in parents and siblings; even step-siblings will grow sexual averse to each other if they grow up from early childhood.

An analysis published in Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology evaluated the literature on human mate choice. The analysis found little evidence for positive imprinting, citing study design flaws and an unwillingness of researchers to seek alternative explanations. In contrast, it found better support for negative sexual imprinting, though it did note the need for further research.

The Freudian slip

Mark notices Deborah enter the office whistling an upbeat tune. He turns to his coworker to say, "Deborah's pretty cheery this morning," but accidentally blunders, "Deborah's pretty cherry this morning." Simple slip up? Not according to Freud, who would label this a parapraxis. Today, it's colloquially known as a "Freudian slip."

"Almost invariably I discover a disturbing influence from something outside of the intended speech," Freud wrote in The Psychopathology of Everyday Life. "The disturbing element is a single unconscious thought, which comes to light through the special blunder."

In the Freudian view, Mark's mistaken word choice resulted from his unconscious desire for Deborah, as evident by the sexually-charged meanings of the word "cherry." But Rob Hartsuiker, a psycholinguist from Ghent University, says that such inferences miss the mark by ignoring how our brains process language.

According to Hartsuiker, our brains organize words by similarity and meaning. First, we must select the word in that network and then process the word's sounds. In this interplay, all sorts of conditions can prevent us from grasping the proper phonemes: inattention, sleepiness, recent activation, and even age. In a study co-authored by Hartsuiker, brain scans showed our minds can recognize and correct for taboo utterances internally.

"This is very typical, and it's also something Freud rather ignored," Hartsuiker told BBC. He added that evidence for true Freudian slips is scant.

Freud's case studies

Sergej Pankejeff, known as the "Wolf Man" in Freud's case study, claimed that Freud's analysis of his condition was "propaganda."

It's worth noting that there is much debate as to the extent that Freud falsified his own case studies. One famous example is the case of the "Wolf Man," real name Sergej Pankejeff. During their sessions, Pankejeff told Freud about a dream in which he was lying in bed and saw white wolves through an open window. Freud interpreted the dream as the manifestation of a repressed trauma. Specifically, he claimed that Pankejeff must have witnessed his parents in coitus.

For Freud this was case closed. He claimed Pankejeff successfully cured and his case as evidence for psychoanalysis's merit. Pankejeff disagreed. He found Freud's interpretation implausible and said that Freud's handling of his story was "propaganda." He remained in therapy on and off for over 60 years.

Many of Freud's other case studies, such "Dora" and "the Rat Man" cases, have come under similar scrutiny.

Sigmund Freud and his legacy

Freud's ideas may not live up to scientific inquiry, but their long shelf-life in film, literature, and criticism has created some fun readings of popular stories. Sometimes a face is just a face, but that face is a murderous phallic symbol. (Photo: Flickr)

Of course, there are many ideas we've left out. Homosexuality originating from arrested sexual development in anal phase? No way. Freudian psychosexual development theory? Unfalsifiable. Women's penis envy? Unfounded and insulting. Men's castration anxiety? Not in the way Freud meant it.

If Freud's legacy is so ill-informed, so unfounded, how did he and his cigars cast such a long shadow over the 20th century? Because there was nothing better to offer at the time.

When Freud came onto the scene, neurology was engaged in a giddy free-for-all. As New Yorker writer Louis Menand points out, the era's treatments included hypnosis, cocaine, hydrotherapy, female castration, and institutionalization. By contemporary standards, it was a horror show (as evident by these "treatments" featuring so prominently in our horror movies).

Psychoanalysis offered a comparably clement and humane alternative. "Freud's theories were like a flashlight in a candle factory," anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann told Menand.

But Freud and his advocates triumph his techniques as a science, and this is wrong. The empirical evidence for his ideas is limited and arbitrary, and his conclusions are unfalsifiable. The theory that explains every possible outcome explains none of them.

With that said, one might consider Freud's ideas to be a proto-science. As astrology heralded astronomy, and alchemy preceded chemistry, so to did Freud's psychoanalysis popularize psychology, paving the way for its more rapid development as a scientific discipline. But like astrology and alchemy, we should recognize Freud's ideas as the historic artifacts they are.

Why are so many objects in space shaped like discs?

It's one of the most consistent patterns in the unviverse. What causes it?

Videos
  • Spinning discs are everywhere – just look at our solar system, the rings of Saturn, and all the spiral galaxies in the universe.
  • Spinning discs are the result of two things: The force of gravity and a phenomenon in physics called the conservation of angular momentum.
  • Gravity brings matter together; the closer the matter gets, the more it accelerates – much like an ice skater who spins faster and faster the closer their arms get to their body. Then, this spinning cloud collapses due to up and down and diagonal collisions that cancel each other out until the only motion they have in common is the spin – and voila: A flat disc.