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The first generation to grow up entirely in the 21st century will never remember a time before smartphones or smart assistants. They will likely be the first children to ride in self-driving cars, as well as the first whose healthcare and education could be increasingly turned over to artificially intelligent machines.
Futurists, demographers, and marketers have yet to agree on the specifics of what defines the next wave of humanity to follow Generation Z. That hasn’t stopped some, like Australian futurist Mark McCrindle, from coining the term Generation Alpha, denoting a sort of reboot of society in a fully-realized digital age.
“In the past, the individual had no power, really,” McCrindle told Business Insider. “Now, the individual has great control of their lives through being able to leverage this world. Technology, in a sense, transformed the expectations of our interactions.”
No doubt technology may impart Marvel superhero-like powers to Generation Alpha that even tech-savvy Millennials never envisioned over cups of chai latte. But the powers of machine learning, computer vision, and other disciplines under the broad category of artificial intelligence will shape this yet unformed generation more definitively than any before it.
What will it be like to come of age in the Age of AI?
The AI Doctor Will See You Now
Perhaps no other industry is adopting and using AI as much as healthcare. The term “artificial intelligence” appears in nearly 90,000 publications from biomedical literature and research on the PubMed database.
AI is already transforming healthcare and longevity research. Machines are helping to design drugs faster and detect disease earlier. And AI may soon influence not only how we diagnose and treat illness in children, but perhaps how we choose which children will be born in the first place.
A study published earlier this month in NPJ Digital Medicine by scientists from Weill Cornell Medicine used 12,000 photos of human embryos taken five days after fertilization to train an AI algorithm on how to tell which in vitro fertilized embryo had the best chance of a successful pregnancy based on its quality.
Investigators assigned each embryo a grade based on various aspects of its appearance. A statistical analysis then correlated that grade with the probability of success. The algorithm, dubbed Stork, was able to classify the quality of a new set of images with 97 percent accuracy.
“Our algorithm will help embryologists maximize the chances that their patients will have a single healthy pregnancy,” said Dr. Olivier Elemento, director of the Caryl and Israel Englander Institute for Precision Medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine, in a press release. “The IVF procedure will remain the same, but we’ll be able to improve outcomes by harnessing the power of artificial intelligence.”
Other medical researchers see potential in applying AI to detect possible developmental issues in newborns. Scientists in Europe, working with a Finnish AI startup that creates seizure monitoring technology, have developed a technique for detecting movement patterns that might indicate conditions like cerebral palsy.
Published last month in the journal Acta Pediatrica, the study relied on an algorithm to extract the movements from a newborn, turning it into a simplified “stick figure” that medical experts could use to more easily detect clinically relevant data.
The researchers are continuing to improve the datasets, including using 3D video recordings, and are now developing an AI-based method for determining if a child’s motor maturity aligns with its true age. Meanwhile, a study published in February in Nature Medicine discussed the potential of using AI to diagnose pediatric disease.
AI Gets Classy
After being weaned on algorithms, Generation Alpha will hit the books—about machine learning.
China is famously trying to win the proverbial AI arms race by spending billions on new technologies, with one Chinese city alone pledging nearly $16 billion to build a smart economy based on artificial intelligence.
To reach dominance by its stated goal of 2030, Chinese cities are also incorporating AI education into their school curriculum. Last year, China published its first high school textbook on AI, according to the South China Morning Post. More than 40 schools are participating in a pilot program that involves SenseTime, one of the country’s biggest AI companies.
In the US, where it seems every child has access to their own AI assistant, researchers are just beginning to understand how the ubiquity of intelligent machines will influence the ways children learn and interact with their highly digitized environments.
Sandra Chang-Kredl, associate professor of the department of education at Concordia University, told The Globe and Mail that AI could have detrimental effects on learning creativity or emotional connectedness.
Similar concerns inspired Stefania Druga, a member of the Personal Robots group at the MIT Media Lab (and former Education Teaching Fellow at SU), to study interactions between children and artificial intelligence devices in order to encourage positive interactions.
Toward that goal, Druga created Cognimates, a platform that enables children to program and customize their own smart devices such as Alexa or even a smart, functional robot. The kids can also use Cognimates to train their own AI models or even build a machine learning version of Rock Paper Scissors that gets better over time.
“I believe it’s important to also introduce young people to the concepts of AI and machine learning through hands-on projects so they can make more informed and critical use of these technologies,” Druga wrote in a Medium blog post.
Druga is also the founder of Hackidemia, an international organization that sponsors workshops and labs around the world to introduce kids to emerging technologies at an early age.
“I think we are in an arms race in education with the advancement of technology, and we need to start thinking about AI literacy before patterns of behaviors for children and their families settle in place,” she wrote.
AI Goes Back to School
It also turns out that AI has as much to learn from kids. More and more researchers are interested in understanding how children grasp basic concepts that still elude the most advanced machine minds.
For example, developmental psychologist Alison Gopnik has written and lectured extensively about how studying the minds of children can provide computer scientists clues on how to improve machine learning techniques.
In an interview on Vox, she described that while DeepMind’s AlpahZero was trained to be a chessmaster, it struggles with even the simplest changes in the rules, such as allowing the bishop to move horizontally instead of vertically.
“A human chess player, even a kid, will immediately understand how to transfer that new rule to their playing of the game,” she noted. “Flexibility and generalization are something that even human one-year-olds can do but that the best machine learning systems have a much harder time with.”
Last year, the federal defense agency DARPA announced a new program aimed at improving AI by teaching it “common sense.” One of the chief strategies is to develop systems for “teaching machines through experience, mimicking the way babies grow to understand the world.”
Such an approach is also the basis of a new AI program at MIT called the MIT Quest for Intelligence.
The research leverages cognitive science to understand human intelligence, according to an article on the project in MIT Technology Review, such as exploring how young children visualize the world using their own innate 3D models.
“Children’s play is really serious business,” said Josh Tenenbaum, who leads the Computational Cognitive Science lab at MIT and his head of the new program. “They’re experiments. And that’s what makes humans the smartest learners in the known universe.”
In a world increasingly driven by smart technologies, it’s good to know the next generation will be able to keep up.
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As technology continues to progress, the possibility of an abundant future seems more likely. Artificial intelligence is expected to drive down the cost of labor, infrastructure, and transport. Alternative energy systems are reducing the cost of a wide variety of goods. Poverty rates are falling around the world as more people are able to make a living, and resources that were once inaccessible to millions are becoming widely available.
But such a life presents fuel for the most common complaint against abundance: if robots take all the jobs, basic income provides us livable welfare for doing nothing, and healthcare is a guarantee free of charge, then what is the point of our lives? What would motivate us to work and excel if there are no real risks or rewards? If everything is simply given to us, how would we feel like we’ve ever earned anything?
Time has proven that humans inherently yearn to overcome challenges—in fact, this very desire likely exists as the root of most technological innovation. And the idea that struggling makes us stronger isn’t just anecdotal, it’s scientifically validated.
For instance, kids who use anti-bacterial soaps and sanitizers too often tend to develop weak immune systems, causing them to get sick more frequently and more severely. People who work out purposely suffer through torn muscles so that after a few days of healing their muscles are stronger. And when patients visit a psychologist to handle a fear that is derailing their lives, one of the most common treatments is exposure therapy: a slow increase of exposure to the suffering so that the patient gets stronger and braver each time, able to take on an incrementally more potent manifestation of their fears.
Different Kinds of Struggle
It’s not hard to understand why people might fear an abundant future as a terribly mundane one. But there is one crucial mistake made in this assumption, and it was well summarized by Indian mystic and author Sadhguru, who said during a recent talk at Google:
Stomach empty, only one problem. Stomach full—one hundred problems; because what we refer to as human really begins only after survival is taken care of.
This idea is backed up by Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, which was first presented in his 1943 paper “A Theory of Human Motivation.” Maslow shows the steps required to build to higher and higher levels of the human experience. Not surprisingly, the first two levels deal with physiological needs and the need for safety—in other words, with the body. You need to have food, water, and sleep, or you die. After that, you need to be protected from threats, from the elements, from dangerous people, and from disease and pain.
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Photo by Wikimedia User:Factoryjoe / CC BY-SA 3.0
The beauty of these first two levels is that they’re clear-cut problems with clear-cut solutions: if you’re hungry, then you eat; if you’re thirsty, then you drink; if you’re tired, then you sleep.
But what about the next tiers of the hierarchy? What of love and belonging, of self-esteem and self-actualization? If we’re lonely, can we just summon up an authentic friend or lover? If we feel neglected by society, can we demand it validate us? If we feel discouraged and disappointed in ourselves, can we simply dial up some confidence and self-esteem?
Of course not, and that’s because these psychological needs are nebulous; they don’t contain clear problems with clear solutions. They involve the external world and other people, and are complicated by the infinite flavors of nuance and compromise that are required to navigate human relationships and personal meaning.
These psychological difficulties are where we grow our personalities, outlooks, and beliefs. The truly defining characteristics of a person are dictated not by the physical situations they were forced into—like birth, socioeconomic class, or physical ailment—but instead by the things they choose. So a future of abundance helps to free us from the physical limitations so that we can truly commit to a life of purpose and meaning, rather than just feel like survival is our purpose.
The Greatest Challenge
And that’s the plot twist. This challenge to come to grips with our own individuality and freedom could actually be the greatest challenge our species has ever faced. Can you imagine waking up every day with infinite possibility? Every choice you make says no to the rest of reality, and so every decision carries with it truly life-defining purpose and meaning. That sounds overwhelming. And that’s probably because in our current socio-economic systems, it is.
Studies have shown that people in wealthier nations tend to experience more anxiety and depression. Ron Kessler, professor of health care policy at Harvard and World Health Organization (WHO) researcher, summarized his findings of global mental health by saying, “When you’re literally trying to survive, who has time for depression? Americans, on the other hand, many of whom lead relatively comfortable lives, blow other nations away in the depression factor, leading some to suggest that depression is a ‘luxury disorder.’”
This might explain why America scores in the top rankings for the most depressed and anxious country on the planet. We surpassed our survival needs, and instead became depressed because our jobs and relationships don’t fulfill our expectations for the next three levels of Maslow’s hierarchy (belonging, esteem, and self-actualization).
But a future of abundance would mean we’d have to deal with these levels. This is the challenge for the future; this is what keeps things from being mundane.
As a society, we would be forced to come to grips with our emotional intelligence, to reckon with philosophy rather than simply contemplate it. Nearly every person you meet will be passionately on their own customized life journey, not following a routine simply because of financial limitations. Such a world seems far more vibrant and interesting than one where most wander sleep-deprived and numb while attempting to survive the rat race.
We can already see the forceful hand of this paradigm shift as self-driving cars become ubiquitous. For example, consider the famous psychological and philosophical “trolley problem.” In this thought experiment, a person sees a trolley car heading towards five people on the train tracks; they see a lever that will allow them to switch the trolley car to a track that instead only has one person on it. Do you switch the lever and have a hand in killing one person, or do you let fate continue and kill five people instead?
For the longest time, this was just an interesting quandary to consider. But now, massive corporations have to have an answer, so they can program their self-driving cars with the ability to choose between hitting a kid who runs into the road or swerving into an oncoming car carrying a family of five. When companies need philosophers to make business decisions, it’s a good sign of what’s to come.
Luckily, it’s possible this forceful reckoning with philosophy and our own consciousness may be exactly what humanity needs. Perhaps our great failure as a species has been a result of advanced cognition still trapped in the first two levels of Maslow’s hierarchy due to a long history of scarcity.
As suggested in the opening scenes in 2001: A Space Odyssey, our ape-like proclivity for violence has long stayed the same while the technology we fight with and live amongst has progressed. So while well-off Americans may have comfortable lives, they still know they live in a system where there is no safety net, where a single tragic failure could still mean hunger and homelessness. And because of this, that evolutionarily hard-wired neurotic part of our brain that fears for our survival has never been able to fully relax, and so that anxiety and depression that come with too much freedom but not enough security stays ever present.
Not only might this shift in consciousness help liberate humanity, but it may be vital if we’re to survive our future creations as well. Whatever values we hold dear as a species are the ones we will imbue into the sentient robots we create. If machine learning is going to take its guidance from humanity, we need to level up humanity’s emotional maturity.
While the physical struggles of the future may indeed fall to the wayside amongst abundance, it’s unlikely to become a mundane world; instead, it will become a vibrant culture where each individual is striving against the most important struggle that affects all of us: the challenge to find inner peace, to find fulfillment, to build meaningful relationships, and ultimately, the challenge to find ourselves.
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Lizards can regrow entire limbs. Flatworms, starfish, and sea cucumbers regrow entire bodies. Sharks constantly replace lost teeth, often growing over 20,000 teeth throughout their lifetimes. How can we translate these near-superpowers to humans?
The answer: through the cutting-edge innovations of regenerative medicine.
While big data and artificial intelligence transform how we practice medicine and invent new treatments, regenerative medicine is about replenishing, replacing, and rejuvenating our physical bodies.
In Part 5 of this blog series on Longevity and Vitality, I detail three of the regenerative technologies working together to fully augment our vital human organs.
Replenish: Stem cells, the regenerative engine of the body
Replace: Organ regeneration and bioprinting
Rejuvenate: Young blood and parabiosis
Let’s dive in.
Replenish: Stem Cells – The Regenerative Engine of the Body
Stem cells are undifferentiated cells that can transform into specialized cells such as heart, neurons, liver, lung, skin and so on, and can also divide to produce more stem cells.
In a child or young adult, these stem cells are in large supply, acting as a built-in repair system. They are often summoned to the site of damage or inflammation to repair and restore normal function.
But as we age, our supply of stem cells begins to diminish as much as 100- to 10,000-fold in different tissues and organs. In addition, stem cells undergo genetic mutations, which reduce their quality and effectiveness at renovating and repairing your body.
Imagine your stem cells as a team of repairmen in your newly constructed mansion. When the mansion is new and the repairmen are young, they can fix everything perfectly. But as the repairmen age and reduce in number, your mansion eventually goes into disrepair and finally crumbles.
What if you could restore and rejuvenate your stem cell population?
One option to accomplish this restoration and rejuvenation is to extract and concentrate your own autologous adult stem cells from places like your adipose (or fat) tissue or bone marrow.
These stem cells, however, are fewer in number and have undergone mutations (depending on your age) from their original ‘software code.’ Many scientists and physicians now prefer an alternative source, obtaining stem cells from the placenta or umbilical cord, the leftovers of birth.
These stem cells, available in large supply and expressing the undamaged software of a newborn, can be injected into joints or administered intravenously to rejuvenate and revitalize.
Think of these stem cells as chemical factories generating vital growth factors that can help to reduce inflammation, fight autoimmune disease, increase muscle mass, repair joints, and even revitalize skin and grow hair.
Over the last decade, the number of publications per year on stem cell-related research has increased 40x, and the stem cell market is expected to increase to $297 billion by 2022.
Rising research and development initiatives to develop therapeutic options for chronic diseases and growing demand for regenerative treatment options are the most significant drivers of this budding industry.
Biologists led by Kohji Nishida at Osaka University in Japan have discovered a new way to nurture and grow the tissues that make up the human eyeball. The scientists are able to grow retinas, corneas, the eye’s lens, and more, using only a small sample of adult skin.
In a Stanford study, seven of 18 stroke victims who agreed to stem cell treatments showed remarkable motor function improvements. This treatment could work for other neurodegenerative conditions such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and ALS.
Doctors from the USC Neurorestoration Center and Keck Medicine of USC injected stem cells into the damaged cervical spine of a recently paralyzed 21-year-old man. Three months later, he showed dramatic improvement in sensation and movement of both arms.
In 2019, doctors in the U.K. cured a patient with HIV for the second time ever thanks to the efficacy of stem cells. After giving the cancer patient (who also had HIV) an allogeneic haematopoietic (e.g. blood) stem cell treatment for his Hodgkin’s lymphoma, the patient went into long-term HIV remission—18 months and counting at the time of the study’s publication.
Replace: Organ Regeneration and 3D Printing
Every 10 minutes, someone is added to the US organ transplant waiting list, totaling over 113,000 people waiting for replacement organs as of January 2019.
Countless more people in need of ‘spare parts’ never make it onto the waiting list. And on average, 20 people die each day while waiting for a transplant.
As a result, 35 percent of all US deaths (~900,000 people) could be prevented or delayed with access to organ replacements.
The excessive demand for donated organs will only intensify as technologies like self-driving cars make the world safer, given that many organ donors result from auto and motorcycle accidents. Safer vehicles mean less accidents and donations.
Clearly, replacement and regenerative medicine represent a massive opportunity.
Enter United Therapeutics CEO, Dr. Martine Rothblatt. A one-time aerospace entrepreneur (she was the founder of Sirius Satellite Radio), Rothblatt changed careers in the 1990s after her daughter developed a rare lung disease.
Her moonshot today is to create an industry of replacement organs. With an initial focus on diseases of the lung, Rothblatt set out to create replacement lungs. To accomplish this goal, her company United Therapeutics has pursued a number of technologies in parallel.
3D Printing Lungs
In 2017, United teamed up with one of the world’s largest 3D printing companies, 3D Systems, to build a collagen bioprinter and is paying another company, 3Scan, to slice up lungs and create detailed maps of their interior.
This 3D Systems bioprinter now operates according to a method called stereolithography. A UV laser flickers through a shallow pool of collagen doped with photosensitive molecules. Wherever the laser lingers, the collagen cures and becomes solid.
Gradually, the object being printed is lowered and new layers are added. The printer can currently lay down collagen at a resolution of around 20 micrometers, but will need to achieve resolution of a micrometer in size to make the lung functional.
Once a collagen lung scaffold has been printed, the next step is to infuse it with human cells, a process called recellularization.
The goal here is to use stem cells that grow on scaffolding and differentiate, ultimately providing the proper functionality. Early evidence indicates this approach can work.
In 2018, Harvard University experimental surgeon Harald Ott reported that he pumped billions of human cells (from umbilical cords and diced lungs) into a pig lung stripped of its own cells. When Ott’s team reconnected it to a pig’s circulation, the resulting organ showed rudimentary function.
Humanizing Pig Lungs
Another of Rothblatt’s organ manufacturing strategies is called xenotransplantation, the idea of transplanting an animal’s organs into humans who need a replacement.
Given the fact that adult pig organs are similar in size and shape to those of humans, United Therapeutics has focused on genetically engineering pigs to allow humans to use their organs. “It’s actually not rocket science,” said Rothblatt in her 2015 TED talk. “It’s editing one gene after another.”
To accomplish this goal, United Therapeutics made a series of investments in companies such as Revivicor Inc. and Synthetic Genomics Inc., and signed large funding agreements with the University of Maryland, University of Alabama, and New York Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center to create xenotransplantation programs for new hearts, kidneys, and lungs, respectively. Rothblatt hopes to see human translation in three to four years.
In preparation for that day, United Therapeutics owns a 132-acre property in Research Triangle Park and built a 275,000-square-foot medical laboratory that will ultimately have the capability to annually produce up to 1,000 sets of healthy pig lungs—known as xenolungs—from genetically engineered pigs.
Lung Ex Vivo Perfusion Systems
Beyond 3D printing and genetically engineering pig lungs, Rothblatt has already begun implementing a third near-term approach to improve the supply of lungs across the US.
Only about 30 percent of potential donor lungs meet transplant criteria in the first place; of those, only about 85 percent of those are usable once they arrive at the surgery center. As a result, nearly 75 percent of possible lungs never make it to the recipient in need.
What if these lungs could be rejuvenated? This concept informs Dr. Rothblatt’s next approach.
In 2016, United Therapeutics invested $41.8 million in TransMedics Inc., an Andover, Massachusetts company that develops ex vivo perfusion systems for donor lungs, hearts, and kidneys.
The XVIVO Perfusion System takes marginal-quality lungs that initially failed to meet transplantation standard-of-care criteria and perfuses and ventilates them at normothermic conditions, providing an opportunity for surgeons to reassess transplant suitability.
Rejuvenate Young Blood and Parabiosis
In HBO’s parody of the Bay Area tech community, Silicon Valley, one of the episodes (Season 4, Episode 5) is named “The Blood Boy.”
In this installment, tech billionaire Gavin Belson (Matt Ross) is meeting with Richard Hendricks (Thomas Middleditch) and his team, speaking about the future of the decentralized internet. A young, muscled twenty-something disrupts the meeting when he rolls in a transfusion stand and silently hooks an intravenous connection between himself and Belson.
Belson then introduces the newcomer as his “transfusion associate” and begins to explain the science of parabiosis: “Regular transfusions of the blood of a younger physically fit donor can significantly retard the aging process.”
While the sitcom is fiction, that science has merit, and the scenario portrayed in the episode is already happening today.
On the first point, research at Stanford and Harvard has demonstrated that older animals, when transfused with the blood of young animals, experience regeneration across many tissues and organs.
The opposite is also true: young animals, when transfused with the blood of older animals, experience accelerated aging. But capitalizing on this virtual fountain of youth has been tricky.
One company, a San Francisco-based startup called Ambrosia, recently commenced one of the trials on parabiosis. Their protocol is simple: Healthy participants aged 35 and older get a transfusion of blood plasma from donors under 25, and researchers monitor their blood over the next two years for molecular indicators of health and aging.
Ambrosia’s founder Jesse Karmazin became interested in launching a company around parabiosis after seeing impressive data from animals and studies conducted abroad in humans: In one trial after another, subjects experience a reversal of aging symptoms across every major organ system. “The effects seem to be almost permanent,” he said. “It’s almost like there’s a resetting of gene expression.”
Infusing your own cord blood stem cells as you age may have tremendous longevity benefits. Following an FDA press release in February 2019, Ambrosia halted its consumer-facing treatment after several months of operation.
Understandably, the FDA raised concerns about the practice of parabiosis because to date, there is a marked lack of clinical data to support the treatment’s effectiveness.
On the other end of the reputability spectrum is a startup called Elevian, spun out of Harvard University. Elevian is approaching longevity with a careful, scientifically validated strategy. (Full Disclosure: I am both an advisor to and investor in Elevian.)
CEO Mark Allen, MD, is joined by a dozen MDs and Ph.Ds out of Harvard. Elevian’s scientific founders started the company after identifying specific circulating factors that may be responsible for the “young blood” effect.
One example: A naturally occurring molecule known as “growth differentiation factor 11,” or GDF11, when injected into aged mice, reproduces many of the regenerative effects of young blood, regenerating heart, brain, muscles, lungs, and kidneys.
More specifically, GDF11 supplementation reduces age-related cardiac hypertrophy, accelerates skeletal muscle repair, improves exercise capacity, improves brain function and cerebral blood flow, and improves metabolism.
Elevian is developing a number of therapeutics that regulate GDF11 and other circulating factors. The goal is to restore our body’s natural regenerative capacity, which Elevian believes can address some of the root causes of age-associated disease with the promise of reversing or preventing many aging-related diseases and extending the healthy lifespan.
In 1992, futurist Leland Kaiser coined the term “regenerative medicine”:
“A new branch of medicine will develop that attempts to change the course of chronic disease and in many instances will regenerate tired and failing organ systems.”
Since then, the powerful regenerative medicine industry has grown exponentially, and this rapid growth is anticipated to continue.
A dramatic extension of the human healthspan is just over the horizon. Soon, we’ll all have the regenerative superpowers previously relegated to a handful of animals and comic books.
What new opportunities open up when anybody, anywhere, and at anytime can regenerate, replenish, and replace entire organs and metabolic systems on command?
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As artificial intelligence systems take on more tasks and solve more problems, it’s hard to say which is rising faster: our interest in them or our fear of them. Futurist Ray Kurzweil famously predicted that “By 2029, computers will have emotional intelligence and be convincing as people.”
We don’t know how accurate this prediction will turn out to be. Even if it takes more than 10 years, though, is it really possible for machines to become conscious? If the machines Kurzweil describes say they’re conscious, does that mean they actually are?
Perhaps a more relevant question at this juncture is: what is consciousness, and how do we replicate it if we don’t understand it?
In a panel discussion at South By Southwest titled “How AI Will Design the Human Future,” experts from academia and industry discussed these questions and more.
Wait, What Is AI?
Most of AI’s recent feats—diagnosing illnesses, participating in debate, writing realistic text—involve machine learning, which uses statistics to find patterns in large datasets then uses those patterns to make predictions. However, “AI” has been used to refer to everything from basic software automation and algorithms to advanced machine learning and deep learning.
“The term ‘artificial intelligence’ is thrown around constantly and often incorrectly,” said Jennifer Strong, a reporter at the Wall Street Journal and host of the podcast “The Future of Everything.” Indeed, one study found that 40 percent of European companies that claim to be working on or using AI don’t actually use it at all.
Dr. Peter Stone, associate chair of computer science at UT Austin, was the study panel chair on the 2016 One Hundred Year Study on Artificial Intelligence (or AI100) report. Based out of Stanford University, AI100 is studying and anticipating how AI will impact our work, our cities, and our lives.
“One of the first things we had to do was define AI,” Stone said. They defined it as a collection of different technologies inspired by the human brain to be able to perceive their surrounding environment and figure out what actions to take given these inputs.
Modeling on the Unknown
Here’s the crazy thing about that definition (and about AI itself): we’re essentially trying to re-create the abilities of the human brain without having anything close to a thorough understanding of how the human brain works.
“We’re starting to pair our brains with computers, but brains don’t understand computers and computers don’t understand brains,” Stone said. Dr. Heather Berlin, cognitive neuroscientist and professor of psychiatry at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, agreed. “It’s still one of the greatest mysteries how this three-pound piece of matter can give us all our subjective experiences, thoughts, and emotions,” she said.
This isn’t to say we’re not making progress; there have been significant neuroscience breakthroughs in recent years. “This has been the stuff of science fiction for a long time, but now there’s active work being done in this area,” said Amir Husain, CEO and founder of Austin-based AI company Spark Cognition.
Advances in brain-machine interfaces show just how much more we understand the brain now than we did even a few years ago. Neural implants are being used to restore communication or movement capabilities in people who’ve been impaired by injury or illness. Scientists have been able to transfer signals from the brain to prosthetic limbs and stimulate specific circuits in the brain to treat conditions like Parkinson’s, PTSD, and depression.
But much of the brain’s inner workings remain a deep, dark mystery—one that will have to be further solved if we’re ever to get from narrow AI, which refers to systems that can perform specific tasks and is where the technology stands today, to artificial general intelligence, or systems that possess the same intelligence level and learning capabilities as humans.
The biggest question that arises here, and one that’s become a popular theme across stories and films, is if machines achieve human-level general intelligence, does that also mean they’d be conscious?
Wait, What Is Consciousness?
As valuable as the knowledge we’ve accumulated about the brain is, it seems like nothing more than a collection of disparate facts when we try to put it all together to understand consciousness.
“If you can replace one neuron with a silicon chip that can do the same function, then replace another neuron, and another—at what point are you still you?” Berlin asked. “These systems will be able to pass the Turing test, so we’re going to need another concept of how to measure consciousness.”
Is consciousness a measurable phenomenon, though? Rather than progressing by degrees or moving through some gray area, isn’t it pretty black and white—a being is either conscious or it isn’t?
This may be an outmoded way of thinking, according to Berlin. “It used to be that only philosophers could study consciousness, but now we can study it from a scientific perspective,” she said. “We can measure changes in neural pathways. It’s subjective, but depends on reportability.”
She described three levels of consciousness: pure subjective experience (“Look, the sky is blue”), awareness of one’s own subjective experience (“Oh, it’s me that’s seeing the blue sky”), and relating one subjective experience to another (“The blue sky reminds me of a blue ocean”).
“These subjective states exist all the way down the animal kingdom. As humans we have a sense of self that gives us another depth to that experience, but it’s not necessary for pure sensation,” Berlin said.
Husain took this definition a few steps farther. “It’s this self-awareness, this idea that I exist separate from everything else and that I can model myself,” he said. “Human brains have a wonderful simulator. They can propose a course of action virtually, in their minds, and see how things play out. The ability to include yourself as an actor means you’re running a computation on the idea of yourself.”
Most of the decisions we make involve envisioning different outcomes, thinking about how each outcome would affect us, and choosing which outcome we’d most prefer.
“Complex tasks you want to achieve in the world are tied to your ability to foresee the future, at least based on some mental model,” Husain said. “With that view, I as an AI practitioner don’t see a problem implementing that type of consciousness.”
Moving Forward Cautiously (But Not too Cautiously)
To be clear, we’re nowhere near machines achieving artificial general intelligence or consciousness, and whether a “conscious machine” is possible—not to mention necessary or desirable—is still very much up for debate.
As machine intelligence continues to advance, though, we’ll need to walk the line between progress and risk management carefully.
Improving the transparency and explainability of AI systems is one crucial goal AI developers and researchers are zeroing in on. Especially in applications that could mean the difference between life and death, AI shouldn’t advance without people being able to trace how it’s making decisions and reaching conclusions.
Medicine is a prime example. “There are already advances that could save lives, but they’re not being used because they’re not trusted by doctors and nurses,” said Stone. “We need to make sure there’s transparency.” Demanding too much transparency would also be a mistake, though, because it will hinder the development of systems that could at best save lives and at worst improve efficiency and free up doctors to have more face time with patients.
Similarly, self-driving cars have great potential to reduce deaths from traffic fatalities. But even though humans cause thousands of deadly crashes every day, we’re terrified by the idea of self-driving cars that are anything less than perfect. “If we only accept autonomous cars when there’s zero probability of an accident, then we will never accept them,” Stone said. “Yet we give 16-year-olds the chance to take a road test with no idea what’s going on in their brains.”
This brings us back to the fact that, in building tech modeled after the human brain—which has evolved over millions of years—we’re working towards an end whose means we don’t fully comprehend, be it something as basic as choosing when to brake or accelerate or something as complex as measuring consciousness.
“We shouldn’t charge ahead and do things just because we can,” Stone said. “The technology can be very powerful, which is exciting, but we have to consider its implications.”
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