Saturday, February 8, 2014

118. The History of Intelligence

'As the most important phenomenon in the universe, intelligence is capable of transcending natural limitations, and of transforming the world in its own image. In human hands, our intelligence has enabled us to overcome the restrictions of our biological heritage and to change ourselves in the process. We are the only species that does this' (Kurzweil 2012).


Ray Kurzweil is an inventor and futurologist (among other things) who has not only been making predictions about the future of artificial intelligence and other things, but has also been instrumental in making many of his predictions come true. This 'ultimate thinking machine' has been the principal inventor of:

  • the first CCD flat-bed scanner;
  • the first omni-font optical character recognizer;
  • the first print-to-speech reading machine for the blind;
  • the first text-to-speech synthesizer;
  • the first music synthesizer capable of re-creating the grand piano and other orchestral instruments; and
  • the first commercially marketed large-vocabulary speech recognizer.

In his latest book 'How to Create a Mind' (2012) he describes our current understanding of how the brain functions and how the mind emerges from the functioning of the brain. I believe that we can now say that we are finally on the right path when it comes to getting the hang of what intelligence is all about. The latest model of the functioning of the brain, presented by Kurzweil, is so successful that I have no doubt that we can reverse-engineer the brain and create a truly worthy artificial analogue of it.

I shall describe Kurzweil's model after doing some groundwork in this and the next few posts, but here is the gist of what the model says:

Modern neuroscience has proved that the neocortex operates according to a relatively straightforward pattern-recognition scheme. This scheme is hierarchical in nature, such that lower-level patterns representing discrete bits of input combine to trigger higher-level patterns that represent more general categories. The hierarchical structure is innate, but the specific categories and meta-categories are filled in by way of learning. Also, the direction of information travel is not only from the bottom up, but also from the top down, such that the activation of higher-order patterns can trigger lower-order ones, and there is feedback between the various levels.

This model or theory is called the Pattern Recognition Theory of the Mind (PRTM).

 Consider the following statements:

1. A long tiresome speech delivered by a frothy pie topping.

2. A garment worn by a child, perhaps abroad an operatic ship.

3. Wanted for a twelve-year crime spree of eating King Hrothgar's warriors; officer Beowulf has been assigned the case.

4. It can mean to develop gradually in the mind or to carry during pregnancy.

5. National Teacher Day and Kentucky Derby Day.

6. Wordsworth said they soar but never roam.

7. Four-letter word for the iron fitting on the hoof of a horse or a card-dealing box in a casino.

8. In act three of an 1846 Verdi opera, this Scourge of God is stabbed to death by his lover, Odabella.

Each of these is the answer to a specific question. For example, (8) is the answer to the question 'What is Atilla the Hun?'. These and other such questions were asked by the anchor in the popular TV show Jeopardy!
In this game the contestant who answers a question correctly before any other contestant can wins that round. The questions are spoken out in English by the anchor and heard by each contestant.

Now the pleasant shocker. In 2011 the IBM computer named Watson competed against the two best human players in the world (Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter), and won!

The questions for the above eight answers are:

1. meringue harangue;
2. pinafore;
3. Grendel;
4. gestate;
5. May;
6. skylark;
7. shoe;
8. what is Atilla the Hun?

For the 8th query Watson replied 'What is Atilla?'. The host responded by saying, 'Be more specific'. Watson said (correctly): 'What is Atilla the Hun?'.

As Kurzweil writes, 'It should be noted that not only did Watson read and "understand" the subtle language in the Jeopardy! query (which includes such phenomena as puns and metaphors), but it obtained the knowledge it needed to come up with a response from understanding hundreds of millions of pages of natural-language documents including Wikipedia and other encyclopedias on its own. It needed to master virtually every area of human intellectual endeavor, including history, science, literature, the arts, culture, and more'. The technique used by such machines is the so-called 'hierarchical hidden Markov model' (HHMM). Kurzweil was among the people who developed this technology in the 1980s and 1990s.

How has such performance become possible? It is because now we have the PRTM, which describes correctly the basic algorithm of the neocortex. What makes me very optimistic about the future of research in artificial intelligence (AI) is the fact that the work on the PRTM and the work on the further development of projects like Watson are going on hand in hand. Insights obtained in one get tested by direct application on the other. Things look very very impressive to indeed.

How come we humans are so intelligent as to be able to understand the secrets of our own intelligence, and are even able to put that knowledge into machines that may soon overtake (and also enhance) our own intelligence? A look at the history of intelligence is in order here.

The first episode in the story of intelligence in our universe occurred when our universe got created, with its given set of fundamental constants of Nature. As I explained in Part 19 and Part 20, the essentially tautological anthropic principle is the reason why the fundamental constants are what they are, namely just right for the emergence and existence of atoms, molecules, and life forms including ourselves (with a neocortex capable of hosting intelligence). The nature of our universe is such that it is capable of encoding information. Moreover, since it has been expanding ever since the Big Bang, there is a perennial creation of gradients which, in turn, lead to the evolution of complexity because of the second law of thermodynamics for open systems (cf. Part 6).

So the lesson from the first part of the story of intelligence is that our universe is based on information, and the information evolves with time (cf. Part 40).

I have already recounted a whole succession of episodes in the story of intelligence:

How atoms emerged was described in Part 18.

The step from atoms to molecules was discussed in Part 41. Of particular importance in this context has been the availability of the carbon atom, which has a valence of 4, and forms an immense variety of information-rich molecules.

As discussed in Part 45, chemical adaptation and chemical evolution occurred over the millennia, resulting in the emergence of the DNA molecule in due course (cf. Part 54). This molecule encoded information which could be passed on to succeeding generations in a precise manner. What is more, the coded information acted like an algorithm for the growth and development of the progeny (translation from genotype to phenotype).

As Kurzweil (2012) narrates, in due course the organisms evolved communication and decision networks called nervous systems, which facilitated survival in the increasingly complex environment. The neurons aggregated into brains capable of intelligent behaviour.

The next development was uniquely human. Our brains are capable of hierarchical thinking. I quote Kurzweil (2012): 'We are capable of hierarchical thinking, of understanding a structure composed of diverse elements arranged in a pattern, representing that arrangement with a symbol, and then using that symbol as an element in a yet more elaborate configuration. . . . we are able to call these patterns ideas. Through an unending recursive process we are capable of building ideas that are ever more complex. We call this vast array of recursively linked ideas knowledge'.

There is another thing unique to humans: An opposable thumb, which enables us to build sophisticated tools. We have used our intelligence and our ability to build tools to develop technology. This has enabled our knowledge base to grow without limits. One of our creations, namely computers, now hold the promise of creating artificial intelligence which will excel our own. I gave glimpses of this prospect in Part 90 ('The Future of Intelligence').

It appears that ours is the only species in our universe which possesses intelligence of an order high enough to make us aware of the grandeur of the universe. We are not just 'star stuff'; we are unique. We should lead lives worthy of our stature in the cosmos.