As much as we might try to fight the foreseeable takeover by artificial intelligence, it’s safe to say that in some ways we’re already fully dependent on machines. Our modes of transportation, communication, shopping, and even mating are being taken over by computer systems and algorithms. Why wouldn’t we want super intelligent, benevolent machines that have only humanity’s safety and best interests in mind? Because if there’s one thing science fiction has taught us, it’s that robots and artificial intelligences can’t be trusted. Well, except Data. And R2-D2. And Johnny 5. And that adorable little WALL-E. What a trooper. Ok, fine I guess some robots are ok. But surely some are evil, right? The truth is, we still don’t know how the artificial intelligences of tomorrow will take to humankind if they ever become truly sentient.
Luckily, humans are still able to deftly outthink most artificial intelligences systems due to the creative powers of imagination, ingenuity, and intuition. Many of the underlying mechanisms of these aspects of human consciousness are still unexplainable by modern science, however, and just what exactly consciousness is remains a mystery. To try and solve that mystery, Sir Roger Penrose is launching the ambitious Penrose Institute, a research institute with the goal of trying to unlock the secrets of human consciousness and cognition.
Penrose, an emeritus professor of mathematics at Oxford, who along with Stephen Hawking won Israel’s 1988 Wolf Prize in physics on black hole research. In an interview with The Telegraph, Penrose reported that he's turning his gaze to the human brain, which remains more powerful than even our fastest and most sophisticated computers. His researchers want to know why:
We know that there are things that the human mind achieves that even the most powerful supercomputer cannot but we don’t know why. [...] If we find out how humans differ from computers then it could have profound sociological implications. People get very depressed when they think of a future where robots or computers will take their jobs, but it might be that there are areas where computers will never be better than us, such as creativity.
Some of the institute’s methods of research are somewhat controversial in some scientific circles and some of their claims about quantum cognition are viewed with skepticism. According to the introduction on the Penrose Institute’s website, the aim of this non-traditional research is to try and unravel the mysteries of how the human brain is capable of out-of-the box “tricks” which elude artificial intelligences:
How the brain performs these feats is a mystery. It must utilize some clever tricks because it consumes far less power than today’s computers, but most scientists believe these ‘tricks’ can be achieved by computation. Roger believes this is not so and the ‘tricks’ will require us to modify our understanding of the interplay between quantum mechanics and general relativity, perhaps leading to new physics. It is the aim of the Institute to study these ideas.
One of their first studies involves asking the public to solve the following chess puzzle to find winning or draw conditions for white:
James Tagg, who leads of the Penrose Institute, claims that a computer will assume a black victory, while a human player can look at the puzzle and quickly devise a solution:
This chess position is designed to show the difference between artificial intelligence (AI) and human intelligence (HI) and the nature of human understanding. A human looking at it for a short while will ‘see’ what white must, and more particularly, must not do, and use very little energy to decide this. But, for a computer, the puzzle requires an enormous number of calculations, far too many for even today’s supercomputers.
Who knows what tomorrow’s computers might be able to do though? Quantum computing will inevitably throw everything we know about computers out the window where it will come crashing down on the piteous Luddites howling away below. All of these unknowns surrounding AI technology have caused some of our brightest minds to speak out against our current unbridled pace of development. Artificial intelligences are already defeating humans at competitions that require creative thinking such as poker and video games. We all know cars will be driving themselves soon, and AI systems are already diagnosing hospital patients and conducting law research. What’s next? Writing news articles on niche news websites? Yikes.