I have some questions for you:
- How many windows were in the house or apartment in which you lived when you were ten?
- Can you name all 50 states? (For Europeans: can you name every country in Europe?)
- What was served at your birthday party when you were 13?
- When you came back from your first trip abroad, how did you describe the experience to your friends?
- What was the most difficult interaction you ever had with a teacher and what did you learn from that experience?
Why am I asking these questions? The popular world has suddenly become obsessed with AI. Venture Capitalists have become obsessed with funding AI companies. I thought it might be helpful if we discussed I (as opposed to AI) a little bit. You can’t really expect an AI to take over the world if it isn’t intelligent. Since the media are so concerned with this impending take over, I thought I would take a shot at explaining some aspects of intelligence in humans and the properties of human memory upon which it relies that AI will have to emulate to be intelligent.
So, question 1, how does one answer it? Actually the answer is pretty simple. You need to take an imaginary walk around your dwelling and count the windows. I always used this example in my AI classes. Why? Because taking an imaginary walk around a house requires a visual memory. We can remember what things looked like, imperfectly, typically, and can find the answer. There is nothing to look up. No data to search. No “deep learning to be had.” You simply have to look. But how simple is that? Can we create a computer that can walk around its own prior visual experiences? Possibly. But the computer would have to have remembered what it saw, not in terms of pixels but in conceptual terms. (“There was a green couch in the living room, I am pretty sure.’) So, memory is visual, but it is also reconstructive. We figure the couch had to have had an end table nearby but we don’t remember it, so we imagine it and attempt to reconstruct it. People get into arguments with family members over this kind of stuff because our memories are imperfect and we reconstruct in idiosyncratic ways. An AI would need to be able to do that. (Fight with its siblings? Yes.)
I asked question 2 in my classes every year. (Former students do you remember that? Maybe you do and maybe you don’t. Can you remember why I did it?) I did it because I was trying to explain the difference between recognition and recall memory. I can’t recall a student who could actually name all 50 states. (There my have been one or two). Mostly they got 47 or 48. They usually left out Utah or Idaho or Arkansas. Why? When I pointed out the states they had missed, no one every said: I never heard of that state. They knew the names of all 50 states but in order to name them they didn’t search the web to find the list. Modern AI’s would have that list. But modern AI’s aren’t really intelligent and don’t behave the way humans do.) They can just search lists. How do people do it? They “walk around” a map that they can visualize. They go down the East Coast and they go up the West Coast. They rarely miss any of those states. It is those darn middle states that cause all the trouble. Why? Because the maps that we have stored in memory are imperfect. Memory is very important in human intelligence but we are kind of bad at at. Does this mean AI’s will beat humans at memory tasks? They might. They probably could name all the states but they would do it very differently. They could win Jeopardy but not by doing what people do wen they recall information. Does this matter? Yes it does. I am getting to why.
Question 3. Why would anyone remember what one ate at a birthday party many years ago? You might not. Part of human memory is its ability to be selective about what it remembers. Not all experiences are equally important. We need to learn from the important ones and disregard the unimportant stuff. Can AI do that? Not that I know about. “Importance” implies that one has goals. These goals drive what we pay attention to and what experiences we dwell upon as we grow up. Oh, but modern AI’s don’t grow up. They just search, and store, and search some more. They don’t get wiser from each experience. And they don’t reconstruct. I have no idea what the food was at my 13th birthday party, but that was a big occasion in my world so I can guess. I really would guess badly because the food was not the issue, the party was. (And, I have pictures, but only of the bread and the cake.) My memory helps me figure out answers, but it does not provide them. My memory is full of experiences that I have to re-interpret every time. That is what intelligence is based upon, faulty memory. So, modern AI can make better memories perhaps, but of what — words in texts? My memory is based upon emotions.That was a big day for me. I remember cousin Joanie dancing. (Or was it my girlfriend Phyllis?). I remember my grandmothers kissing me. I remember my mother’s yellow dress. Memory is like that. (And since I am male it is not shocking that I remember the females, who always held (and still do hold) a fascination for me.)
Question 4. My first trip abroad, which lasted about a month, has maybe five salient memories. One was watching my mother do business in Austria and noticing that she had failed to notice something her competitors were doing that was hurting her. A second was driving around some of Eastern Europe by myself, a drive which included me passing a farmer in a wagon in Yugoslavia and feeling him hit my car with his horsewhip. (Maybe I wasn’t supposed to pass him.) A third was meeting a girl on the plane from Vienna to Tel Aviv simply because I asked her a question (in English of course) and she was ecstatic to find someone else on the plane to talk to. (Our relationship lasted all of two weeks, but I remember it.) A fourth (this was 1967) was seeing the Israelis already building settlements on the West Bank and me wondering how exactly doing that would lead to peace.) The fifth was my visit to Venice where I was hosted by a cousin who tested my “American crudity” by asking me to eat spaghetti, assuming that I would do it wrong and her being disappointed when I didn’t. (I grew up with a lot of Italians in Brooklyn.) Why am I telling you this? Because this trip lasted a month. I can remember a little more about it but not a month’s worth of stuff. I remembered stuff that caused me to learn something important about business, about how to meet women, about international politics, and about things I still don't understand —e.g. the farmer with the whip.) We learn from experience. Any serious AI program would have to do the same. Too bad what we mean by AI today isn’t even close to what I am talking about.
The last question is obvious. A good teacher makes you think. I had plenty of those. I also had one who hit me. I didn’t learn much from that except to stay away from her. As I write this, I am on the way to the 90th birthday party of my PhD thesis advisor (Jacob Mey.) All my interactions with him were difficult. From each one I came out wiser. I learned from being criticized and I learned from being told I was wrong. We argued. I learned. When AI programs do that, we will have AI. Until then, not so much.
Argumentation, goals, emotion, visualization, imagination, and reconstructive memory. Stop worrying about current AI programs. Or, start worrying about them. Because they sure aren’t doing those things.