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American author and futurist Ray Kurzweil forecast that by 2099, machines would have attained equal legal status with humans. Photo: iStock
American author and futurist Ray Kurzweil forecast that by 2099, machines would have attained equal legal status with humans. Photo: iStock

Can humans become supercomputers?

While Hollywood makes artificial intelligence look increasingly realistic, research demonstrates that the man-machine comparison still favours us

In his 2006 book The Singularity is Near, American author and futurist Ray Kurzweil predicted, among many other things, that artificial intelligence (AI) will surpass humans, the smartest and most capable life forms on the planet. By 2099, he forecast that machines would have attained equal legal status with humans.

The predictions do remind one of movies like the Bicentennial Man, starring the late Robin Williams. It was based on a 1976 novel by Isaac Asimov—American author and professor of biochemistry at Boston University best known for his sci-fi works like I, Robot.

Kurzweil’s forecasts also bring to mind another movie—Surrogates, starring Bruce Willis, wherein people in a futuristic world live within the safety of their homes while their robotic surrogates carry on with the daily chores.

The jury is out on whether these predictions will play out in the manner that Kurzweil forecast them. International Business Machines Corp.’s (IBM’s) supercomputing engine Watson beat the best of Jeopardy gamers in 2011, and now oil, healthcare, finance and education companies are tapping its cognitive powers.

Facebook AI Research (FAIR), according to a November 2015 note by Mike Schroepfer, chief technology officer at the social network, has been conducting ambitious research in areas like image recognition and natural language understanding with developments in a new technology called Memory Networks (MemNets) that add a type of short-term memory to the convolutional neural networks that power our deep-learning systems, allowing those systems to understand language more like a human would.

Schroepfer did mention in his note that humans were—at least, till then—still the best AI players with reference to playing the game ‘Go’, which has a hundred times more moves than a game of chess.

In my column on 23 February, titled: Should we fear artificial intelligence?, I had argued that while AI machines are currently no match for the super-intelligent AI machines like Skynet, androids and cyborgs that we get to see in sci-fi movies, it may not be the case for long.

However, in March, Google Inc.-owned AI firm, DeepMind’s computer programme, AlphaGo, beat Go champion, Lee Seedol, once again triggering a deep-seated fear about the prowess of AI-driven bots.

On the flip side, Microsoft Corp’s AI chatbot—Tay—turned racist and sexist within 24 hours, forcing Microsoft to issue an apology and take Tay offline. The company, though, does have a chatbot called XiaoIce in China, which it claims is being used by about 40 million people.

Such developments do give the impression that machines will soon become more intelligent than us.

But we are not beaten yet—human skills are still superior in some areas, concludes a recent study by Danish physicist Jacob Sherson, published in the science journal Nature.

Sherson and his research group at Aarhus University (AU), according to a 13 April statement, have identified one of the abilities that still makes us unique compared to a computer’s enormous processing power—our skill in approaching problems heuristically and solving them intuitively.

The idea took root at the AU Ideas Centre CODER, where an interdisciplinary team of researchers work to transfer some human traits to the way computer algorithms work. The team here uses games to engage people in voluntary science research. Every week people around the world spend 3 billion hours playing games.

Now, quantum physics holds the promise of immense technological advances in areas ranging from computing to high-precision measurements. However, the problems that need to be solved to get there are so complex that even the most powerful supercomputers struggle with them. This is where the core idea behind CODER—combining the processing power of computers with human ingenuity—is important.

The CODER research group mapped out how the human brain is able to make decisions based on intuition and accumulated experience. They do this using the online game “Quantum Moves". Over 10,000 people have played the game that allows everyone to contribute to basic research in quantum physics.

The laws of quantum physics dictate an upper speed limit for data manipulation, which in turn sets the ultimate limit to the processing power of quantum computers—the Quantum Speed Limit. Until now a computer algorithm has been used to identify this limit. It turns out that with human input researchers can find much better solutions than the algorithm.

While a computer goes through all available options, players automatically search for a solution that intuitively feels right, the researchers noted. “If we can teach computers to recognise these good solutions, calculations will be much faster. In a sense we are downloading our common intuition to the computer," Sherson said.

And it works. The group has shown that we can break the Quantum Speed Limit by combining the cerebral cortex and computer chips. This is the new powerful tool in the development of quantum computers and other quantum technologies.

“Who needs a supercomputer if we can access even a small fraction of this computing power? By turning science into games, anyone can do research in quantum physics. We have shown that games break down the barriers between quantum physicists and people of all backgrounds, providing phenomenal insights into state-of-the-art research.

“Our project combines the best of both worlds and helps challenge established paradigms in computational research," Sherson explains. He argues that the difference between the machine and us, figuratively speaking, is that we intuitively reach for the needle in a haystack without knowing exactly where it is. We ‘guess’ based on experience and thereby skip a whole series of bad options.

“With the problem underlying Quantum Moves we give the computer every chance to beat us. Yet, over and over again we see that players are more efficient than machines at solving the problem. While Hollywood blockbusters on artificial intelligence are starting to seem increasingly realistic, our results demonstrate that the comparison between man and machine still sometimes favours us. We are very far from computers with human-type cognition," Sherson concludes.

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