Computers Will Eventually Do Our Thinking for Us
Computers Will Eventually Do Our Thinking for Us
By M.R. Vanderhorst
Quantum gravity, also called Grand Unified Field Theory, commonly known as the theory of everything, is the Holy Grail of modern physics. For almost a century scientists have been searching for a simple equation that brings together classical Newtonian physics, Einstein’s relativity, and the strange world of quantum mechanics into one understandable hypothesis. If this synthesis is accomplished, it could be the greatest achievement of human kind.
But what if the mind that brings together these ideas is not human at all but rather a super-intelligent computer? Scientists agree that it is only a matter of time until we build a computer that is as smart as a human being; so, it stands to reason that we could eventually build a computer that is smarter than a human being. When this happens, it seems very likely that a computer mind could go down avenues that our limited human imaginations would never even consider.
Each new generation of computers is smarter and more powerful than the last. The first electronic computer, the ENIAC, was less powerful than a cheap modern calculator. Yet it was heralded at the time as a significant advance in human ingenuity. Today the average smartphone is many orders of magnitude more powerful than the computer that got the Apollo 11 astronauts to and back from the Moon. Computers have produced original artwork and even composed symphonies. This incredible display of creativity would have been unfathomable just a generation ago. It seems that this upward trend in computer sophistication can last indefinitely. The above-mentioned theory of everything solution would be the end game of the potential of artificial intelligence. But through intermediate steps, computers will increasingly function more and more like a human brain, albeit much faster and more efficient.
Another interesting development in computer science is facial recognition; not just being able to recognize one human face from another, but also being able to tell a person’s mood through their facial expressions. Computers can now tell if a person is sad, happy, angry, frustrated, or any other emotion simply by analyzing the face.
Super-intelligent computers, however, will go much further. Complicated ideas in physics, medicine, genetics and numerous other fields may one day be comprehensible by these non-human machines. My opening example of the theory of everything is just one. Currently, we have computers that can diagnose and treat certain medical conditions better than human doctors. Given this data, we need only to extrapolate 30 or so years into the future. Imagine a computer that can not only diagnose and treat diseases like a doctor, but could conceivably develop cures for conditions like cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, and schizophrenia, all on its own. Problems in engineering and physics are no different than those in medicine.
For a human, thinking is a complex process. The human brain has 100 billion neurons making it the most complex structure in the known universe. These neurons not only transmit signals to our organs to keep them functioning, they also generate thoughts feelings and emotions. When a person thinks about or experiences something, his or her brain’s neurons are activated. But it does not happen in just one part of the brain. If one were to think about a horse for example, it could trigger multiple thoughts and memories for that person. They might recall the first time they rode a horse and at the same time remember a movie they had seen that had horses in it. Also, it could trigger the senses for that person, like what the horse smelled like and what its mane felt like. These memories happen in different parts of the brain. Thus, our neurons are always active. Neurons drive creativity. They are the result of millions of years of evolution and natural selection. However, brains have limits that computers do not.
One problem is the phenomenon of consciousness. As human beings, we are aware of our surroundings in ways that computers are not. In fact, scientists are unsure as to how or why humans became conscious. Consciousness may be a mystery, but it is what makes us human. However, there is a downside to the miracle of consciousness. As we go through our day we experience so many incidents and interactions that our conscious brains could not possibly remember or process it all. Thus, most of it gets filtered out and forgotten. We tend to remember only those events, incidences, and interactions that have strong emotional, personal, or psychological significance. A person could have trouble remembering what they had for lunch five days ago, but would have a strong memory of their wedding day 20 years before. The reason for this is because our brains tend to discard memories it feels are less important. This frees up space in the brain to develop new memories.
But even the things we remember are corrupted by our own conscious brain. We often remember events incorrectly, or meld two or more different memories together. Our memories are subject to external stimuli that change our perceptions. Also, as we get older our memories begin to fail us. Therefore, our minds grow weaker with time. In short, the human brain is not perfect.
Super advanced computers would not have this problem. They would have perfect memories and theoretically be conscious at the same time. They will be creative, independent, and forward-thinking. They will remember in perfect detail everything they have ever been exposed to, and will build upon that. Their minds will be rooted in scientific rationalism and logic and will accomplish feats that human brains could not even fathom.
We are still in the earliest stages of the development of super-intelligent computers. In the 70 years since the ENIAC, computer technology has advanced exponentially. In 1996 a super-computer called Deep Blue became the first machine to defeat a chess grand master in a match. The loser, Garry Kasparov, had an estimated IQ of 190. Kasparov however was at a distinct disadvantage, as Deep Blue could plan 200 million moves ahead each second.
Space exploration may be the catalyst to greater advances in artificial intelligence. For example, NASA has sent semi-autonomous robotic probes to Mars and the outer planets. These probes have given us invaluable insights into the nature, composition, origin, and evolution of objects in the solar system and beyond. NASA’s Voyager 1 space probe has become the first human-made object to leave the solar system. In fact, many scientists believe the future of space exploration is with artificially intelligent machines and not manned missions. Sending robotic probes into deep space has many advantages over manned missions. Machines do not get lonely on long voyages, they could withstand the high levels of deadly cosmic radiation that would endanger astronauts, and once they reach their destination, the machines resource requirements would be significantly less than a human. Also, each new generation of robotic probes will become more self-reliant; doing more tasks that an astronaut could do. One of the greatest minds of the 20th century, John von Neumann, proposed intelligent, self-replicating machines that could explore the solar system and even the galaxy. We may in the next few years see the beginnings of these “von Neumann machines.”
Some people may fear the growing power of non-human intelligence, but it could turn out to be a fortuitous event for our species. Popular science fiction as often portrayed intelligent machines as being a threat to human existence and happiness. We are all aware of films like The Terminator, The Matrix, and others in which machines become our overlords or worse yet, our exterminators. But ultimately this is human shortsightedness. We are projecting our own follies and imperfect nature onto machines that will likely be benevolent. If we could but imagine how far artificial intelligence might take us in the years, decades, and centuries to come, we would look forward to the day when machines become sentient and independent. When that day comes (and it will come) it will be a great day indeed.