Do Roombas dream of digital dustbunnies?

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by Richard Nilsen
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I am not smart enough to have a meaningful opinion about Artificial Intelligence. I’m not sure anyone is.
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Thought on the matter is all over the place: Savior of humankind; destroyer of the world; future slavemaster of downtrodden muggles; insurer of the easy life; purloiner of jobs; next stop on the evolutionary bus.
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It may give us gifts in health care, transportation and scientific research, but it also can fuel mass surveillance, false news, robocalls, and online phishing attacks.
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Supporters say that AI will help the military make battles more precise and accurate, reducing both civilian death and harm to soldiers; but for the same reason, it also could wind up making wars more frequent.
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Ethics is a primary concern, but as one corporate spokesman pointed out, “Ethics is in the eye of the beholder.”
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One of the problems is that the subject is so huge, and so multifarious, that even experts tend to specialize in this area or that, meaning that the whole is the elephant and the blind men. Another problem is that we seem to be at the threshold of the subject: If you were to predict in 1957 where the microchip would take us, I doubt you would have foreseen millions of teenagers with their faces lit celadon by the screens of their iPhones while they play Pokemon Go, or take photos of each other with bunny ears or cat whiskers.
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Or that the biggest outrage of etiquette at a symphony concert or opera would be the uninvited sound of a ringtone — always at the most inopportune moments.
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But the biggest problem is that we cannot decide what intelligence actually is. Whether it is artificial or natural hardly matters, if we cannot agree on what we mean by the word.
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Robot thinker artificial intelligence progress pop art retro style. Antique pose. science fiction and the robot character.

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There are so many kinds of intelligence, ranging from mathematical genius to the spatial sense of certain athletes who can put a 9.4-inch ball through an 18-inch hoop from the three-point line — whoosh. Or the ability of certain people to empathize or read facial expressions, or to find directions instantly in a new city — without the help of GPS.
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For the masses, intelligence is about how much you know. If you can win at Jeopardy, you must be smart. Well, perhaps you need to have a quotient of intelligence to learn so much, but the information is not the intelligence. It is merely a byproduct. There’s a lot of people who know a lot who you scratch your head over because they just don’t seem all that bright. A good memory is one thing … but only one thing.
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Proponents of AI tell us that given time, there will be digital parallels to all these faces of intelligence. Computer prophet Lawrence Tesler first noted this in the 1970s, when he proposed his theorem: “AI is whatever hasn’t been done yet.”
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Opponents cling on to the belief that there is something special about the human mind that can never be duplicated synthetically. (Neurobiologists seem to keep finding evidence contradicting that proud belief — perhaps the brain really is only a supercomputer; perhaps we recognize faces the same way a street camera in London does.)
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Judging by the past, the future will just be a continuous incremental nibbling away of what we think makes us human.
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Or perhaps, the future will sound like Arnold Schwarzenegger: “I’ll pea pack.” Will you have to give every phone call a Turing test? How many men already have erotic dreams about Siri or Alexa?
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If AI can fully mimic human intelligence, will it be able to forget what it knows? Forgetting is an important human quality; it makes forgiveness possible.
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So, what is intelligence? I was once asked that by a fresh-faced young woman after a panel discussion I was part of.
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I said at the time that for me, intelligence can best be found in forgetting. I called it “volitional ignorance,” or a willed erasure of everything you know. I still believe this: to learn anything new, you have to unlearn what you already thought you understood: What you know prevents learning.
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People create for themselves a model of reality, or more accurately, many models. These models derive from experience. When anything new makes itself felt, it is immediately tested against the model most appropriate.
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If no model is right, the new fact can be dealt with in one of two ways. Most commonly, it is squeezed into the model like a square peg hammered into a round hole. The new is shaved and jiggered until it conforms with what we already know. In the end, we have learned nothing; we may only have renamed what we already knew.
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William Blake made this a centerpiece of his poetry and his way of understanding the world. “Man by his reasoning power can only compare and judge of what he has already perceiv’d,” he wrote. “From of perception of only three senses or three elements none could deduce a fourth or fifth. … and would soon be at the ratio of all things and stand still, unable to do other than repeat the same dull round over again.”
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But intelligence is what makes us throw out the old category rather than mangle the nonconforming fact.
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And those who are genuinely brilliant throw out the categories before even considering the new fact. This is what I mean by “volitional ignorance.” It forces us to reinvent the wheel every single time and is the only way to discover anything genuine about the problem of wheels.
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Something of the same is sometimes called “zen mind/beginner’s mind” and means that you accept the experience fresh and start for yourself rather than relying on the culturally accepted model.
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The young woman said at the time, “You mean, like coloring outside the lines,” and I agreed. But I soon realized, I was doing exactly what I said I shouldn’t. I was using a cliche to understand something beyond conventional tropes.
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For it is not like coloring outside the lines, not at all.
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When she said that, she was in fact squeezing my square peg into a round hole, translating what I was saying into something she already understood.
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We all do this constantly, and I am not criticizing her for it. I am frequently guilty of the same thing. In fact, we cannot do otherwise without becoming yammering idiots. A certain amount of structure is needed to function in our daily lives: We cannot question the egg at every breakfast.
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But still, intelligence is the ability to get past the quotidian. I call the ignorance “volitional” because it is something I make a choice about. Those who are forced to see everything fresh at every second of their lives are called schizophrenic; they cannot edit the information coming into their brains.
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Yet, we need to be able to allow ourselves to enter that state on cue if we are ever to learn anything new and genuine.
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Coloring outside the lines implies a disregard of the structure of the drawing we are coloring. Intelligence doesn’t mean the mere disregard of structure, but the discovery of yet another structure, as if, looking up at the night sky, we were able to ignore all the constellations and create new ones, entirely our own and what is more, that the ones we create are better and truer than the old ones, just as the Big Dipper is easier to see than the Great Bear.
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There are also several other aspects of intelligence that need mentioning, I think, although they are all related.
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First is that intelligence can apprehend the similarities of disparate things. It recognizes in what way the horse is the same as the fork. It makes us transcend the accepted categories of things and redefine the categories. Perhaps, instead of thinking of the categories “mammal” and “silverware,” we might discover that through human history, both horse and fork have been used as parts of the common category “tool.”
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Or perhaps: four legs; four tines.
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“A vast similitude interlocks all,” thought Walt Whitman standing on the beach at night and imagining the planets and comets spinning over his head.
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I remember a segment on Sesame Street where they played the game, “Three of these things are kind of the same,” where they show us four items and ask which doesn’t belong, and which three do belong.
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In this case, they had a red ball, a tomato, a green apple and a ruddy pear. Well, there are four different answers: The ball is not edible; the apple is not red; the pear is not round; and the tomato was not known in Europe before Columbus: Each is different in its own way.
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The ability to see multiple answers is another sign of intelligence. Intelligence embraces ambiguity.
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The digital world is built of zeros and ones — either/or — it is by design inimical to ambiguity. Certainly, ambiguity can be designed in, but it has to be jiggered to do so. If you ask “which of these is different?,” you confuse the program.
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And finally, intelligence understands things metaphorically, that is, it thinks in images and discovers in them reductions of complex thoughts in small, understandable packages that resonate emotionally.
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Einstein first discovered his theory of relativity not in a mathematical equation, but in a mental picture. It gave him the insight he needed to later forge the math proving his insight. But the picture came first.
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Prod DB © UFA / DRMETROPOLIS (METROPOLIS) de Fritz Lang 1926 ALLavec Brigitte Helmclassique, science fiction, anticipation, robot, androide, pentacled’après le roman de Thea Von Harbou

Speaking of one thing while meaning another is the heart of intelligence.

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This is not a game, merely substituting one thing for another as in a rebus, but rather it is the recognition that our vocabulary is limited by what we know already. When we confront something genuinely new, we cannot speak of it in language we already have, we must speak of what it is “like.”
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In each case, we are trying to convey something of the complexity and subtlety of what we feel, not allowing it to die the death of the normal, the bland, the banal. We are insisting that the particular emotion be understood and felt by the stranger to whom we are talking. We want exactness in our language and we can only reach it through inexactness. The more precise a word is, the less it describes. We need ambiguity to communicate: Metaphor is the means of doing it.
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All our highest and best thoughts are metaphorical. All the most banal come straight from the dictionary.
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So far, AI seems stuck in ever more complex rewirings of what is already input. Can it finagle those ones and zeros and come up withHamlet, or will monkeys do it first?
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Richard Nilsen inspired many ideas and memories at the salons he presented through the years when he was an arts critic and movie, travel, and features writer at The Arizona Republic.   A few years ago, Richard moved to North Carolina.   We want to continue our connection with Richard and have asked him to be a regular contributor to the Spirit of the Senses Journal.   We asked Richard to write short essays that were inspired by the salons.

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