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Artificial Intelligence, Really, Is Pseudo-Intelligence

Artificial intelligence.
iStockphoto
Artificial intelligence.
iStockphoto

One reason I'm not worried about the possibility that we will soon make machines that are smarter than us, is that we haven't managed to make machines until now that are smart at all. Artificial intelligence isn't synthetic intelligence: It's pseudo-intelligence.

This really ought to be obvious. Clocks may keep time, but they don't know what time it is. And strictly speaking, it is we who use them to tell time. But the same is true of Watson, the IBM supercomputer that supposedly played Jeopardy! and dominated the human competition. Watson answered no questions. It participated in no competition. It didn't do anything. All the doing was on our side. We played Jeapordy! with Watson. We used "it" the way we use clocks.

Philosophers and biologists like to compare the living organism to a machine. And once that's on the table, we are lead to wonder whether various kinds of human-made machines could have minds like ours, too.

But it's striking that even the simplest forms of life — the amoeba, for example — exhibit an intelligence, an autonomy, an originality, that far outstrips even the most powerful computers. A single cell has a life story; it turns the medium in which it finds itself into an environment and it organizes that environment into a place of value. It seeks nourishment. It makes itself — and in making itself it introduces meaning into the universe.

Now, admittedly, unicellular organisms are not very bright — but they are smarter than clocks and supercomputers. For they possess the rudimentary beginnings of that driven, active, compelling engagement that we call life and that we call mind. Machines don't have information. We process information with them. But the amoeba does have information — it gathers it, it manufactures it.

I'll start worrying about the singularity when IBM has made machines that exhibit the agency and awareness of an amoeba.

There is another sense, though, in which we hit the singularity long ago. We don't make smart machines and we don't make machines likely to be smarter than us. But we do make ourselves smarter and more flexible and more capable through our machines and other technologies. Clothing, language, pictures, writing, the abacus and so on. Each of these has not only expanded us but has altered us, making us into something we were not before. And this process of making and remaking, or extending and transforming, is as old as our species.

In a sense, then, we've always been trans-human, more than human, or more than merely biological. Or rather, our biology as always been technology-enriched and more than merely flesh and blood.

We carry on the process that begins with the amoeba. Watson is our achievement. Its pseudo-intelligence is our genuine, 100 percent novel intelligence.


Alva Noë is a philosopher at the University of California at Berkeley where he writes and teaches about perception, consciousness and art. You can keep up with more of what Alva is thinking on Facebook and on Twitter: @alvanoe