Reality Check: Artificial General Intelligence Will Soon Take Charge

There’s one stupid but cool mind paradox. Every time you hear about artificial intelligence taking over the world, stealing our jobs, treating us like we treat ants, and putting mankind on the brink of extinction, it sounds scary. It really is, especially if you’re a Bostrom fan.  But strangely, these thoughts bring a sort of uncanny pleasure. We all love to speculate about this grim future, don’t we? Is that the imp of the perverse that Poe talked about? Or maybe we all love to think of ourselves stepping into a sci-fi plot. Anyway, it’s quite a glamourous, post-apocalyptic scenario, much better than a nuclear winter. This time we’re investigating how rational these fears are against real data. What’s going on? Should we be scared?

What kind of AI we’re talking about - Artificial General Intelligence (AGI)

“We just ended slavery not too long ago, and in some parts of the world it still exists, and yet our greatest ambition as a species is to create new slaves that we can completely dominate and manipulate as we please. AI research is a disgusting abomination and it should be completely banned across every corner of the Earth for moral reasons alone."

From the comments section of a popular tech magazine

What kind of AI plants so much fear into people’s minds? The thing is, we already have a whole horde of algorithms that we refer to collectively as AI. AI is in video games that sometimes act like trained professionals and sometimes, well... don’t. Google, the search engine that became a verb, is AI. An unpredictable and annoying AI ranks posts in the Facebook newsfeed. AI is responsible for remarketing ads that haunt you everywhere across the web if you’ve ever considered buying something online. Even your weather app that recommended taking an umbrella is AI. These don’t look too dangerous, unless you let AI commandeer your life and take you on ride in the back seat of an autopilot-driven Tesla. Existing variations of AI are very narrow-minded and can only do the things that programmers tell them, either explicitly or through machine learning. Calculators are very good at multiplying or dividing large numbers, but that’s as far as they can get. That’s why we call this kind of AI artificial narrow intelligence (ANI). Ominous AI talks ranging from moderate wariness to outright panic relate to AGI (artificial general intelligence). And what kind of a beast is that? We simply don’t know because we haven’t yet seen one. It’s assumed that AGI will have the same cognitive abilities as humans do. In other words, it’s supposed to think and reason as we do or much better, given the advantage of computational power over human brain power. Here're some expectations for AGI that derive from common things that humans are good at:
  • Understand natural language and converse so that humans won’t tell the difference
  • Represent knowledge
  • Generalize objects
  • Learn
  • Solve puzzles
  • Feel free to name some yourself. . .
The list can go on and on as we add the marvelous maneuvers that our impressive head-mounted computer can do. And we already have algorithms that can do many of them!
  • In 2014, “Eugene Goostman,” ostensibly a 13-year-old boy from Ukraine, won the Turing test. Or Eugene’s creators did. A program developed by Vladimir Veselov, a native of Russia currently living in the United States, and Ukrainian Eugene Demchenko, now living in Russia, bamboozled 33 percent of the judges into thinking that it was indeed a boy texting with them.
  • And back in 2011, Watson, the intelligent IBM machine, became the champion of TV show Jeopardy!
  • To prove that algorithms can generalize and learn – at least to some extent – check the object recognition of images that Google, IBM, Cloudsight, and some other systems do.
  • Even the most complicated puzzle in the world – like the game of Go (it brags about having more possible board combinations than there are atoms in the Universe) – was tackled by a computer. More specifically, the computer won the game against its human champion.
There it is. Why don’t we combine these machines to make AGI? Well, we already do something like that. Google Assistant, Siri, Amazon’s Alexa, and Microsoft’s Cortana are products of that sort of combination. They consist of multiple modules that sometimes make us believe that there’s some intelligence behind them. Each of these modules is an example of ANI and the overall intelligence is limited by their number. New problems will pose an unbearable task for that sort of AI to handle. You can ask Siri to call you an Uber, but if you install a different taxi app, Siri won’t be able to help you with it. This difference between behaving as an intelligent entity and actually being one is described by the Chinese room argument. The thought experiment presented by philosopher John Searle suggests you imagine a room where a computer sits. To pass this Turing test, the goal is to convince judges – they stand outside the room – that the computer understands Chinese. As judges unwittingly input Chinese phrases, the computer spits out its responses in Chinese. But what happens if we were to replace the computer with a man who doesn’t speak Chinese? Of course, we would provide him with the same elaborate instructions the computer had so he can manually perform the same operations. Let’s forget for a second that this poor man would likely starve to death before producing results to equal the machine’s as the machine is immeasurably better at algorithmic calculations. If we provide all information needed to the man and we are extraordinarily patient, he can eventually churn out responses like those of the machine. Does that indicate he knows Chinese? Well, probably not and the same goes for the computer. They both follow instructions without understanding the meaning of their actions. Searle argues that imitating intelligence isn’t intelligence. So, how can we recognize AGI? Is there going to be a moment when somebody proudly announces to the world at large, “We’ve developed AGI! Say hello to it!” Will we be able to start relationships with it and then break up like in the movie Her? And will we be able to distinguish between a sophisticated imitation and an artificial mind? What are the criteria of AGI? Frankly, we don’t know. That makes all AGI predictions difficult. It’s a hypothetical machine that has never existed and we haven’t yet agreed on its qualities. In fact, we haven’t even agreed on the definition of intelligence. Here are some, pick the one you like most. This might be the point at which to end the story. We don’t know exactly what we’re talking about. And for some reason, we assume that AGI speculations deserve more attention than those about building a time-travel machine or enabling teleportation. Well, it would be equally stupid if many thought leaders weren't expecting AGI to arrive in some 20 to 60 years.

How we predict AGI

“One thing that we can be quite certain of is that any predictions we make today, for what the future will be like in 50 years, will be wrong.”

Elon Musk, WGS17 Session

We all know that sci fi sucks at predicting the tech future.  2001: A Space Odyssey has impressively predicted the invention of some artifacts like tablet computers, but it obviously has failed at timing. Other examples are even worse. Nostromo, the spacecraft from the film Alien that travels long distances through space, has CRT monitors. Flying cars have been a great disappointment, the real flying cars, not those refrigerators with wheels and propellers from the Netherlands. And by the way, where are hoverboards? Well, for the sake of compelling drama, it’s okay that fi beats the crap out of sci. In real-world forecasts, we’re far more accurate, aren’t we? The fear of AGI becoming reality was widely propagated after Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking endorsed the thinking of Nick Bostrom, an Oxford philosopher. The warnings had been expressed before that, but Bostrom’s fears were planted in the fertile ground of public opinion, given the latest AI advancements. Bostrom surveyed top AI researchers asking when AGI is likely to arrive and whether this poses an existential threat to humanity. He even wrote a book about it. The main concern is whether we are ready to face a machine that can easily excel at human cognitive abilities, become super intelligent, and win the superiority cup on this planet. Returning to the previous concern – we don’t know what AGI means and whether we could even compare humans with this hypothetic machine. This doesn’t, however, stop scientists from making predictions. Bostrom’s research unites participants of AI-related conferences (PT-AI 2011 and AGI 2012), members of the Greek Association for Artificial Intelligence, and Top 100 authors in artificial intelligence by citation in all years. The survey asked experts by what year they see a 10% / 50% / 90% probability for AGI. when AGI

Source: Future Progress in Artificial Intelligence: A Survey of Expert Opinion

The experts suggest that by 2040 we have a 50 percent chance to actualize AGI. In the research, they call it HMLI (high-level machine intelligence), which “can carry out most human professions at least as well as a typical human.” And it’s very likely that in about 60 years machines will reach this level. To have a better idea of opinion distribution, it’s worth mentioning a survey of American Association for Artificial Intelligence members by Oren Etzioni, a professor of computer science and CEO of the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence. This one is more straightforward and simply asks when superintelligence will arrive. The concept of superintelligence implies that AGI will exceed human cognitive capabilities soon after being invented. And yet, it’s no less fuzzy a concept than AGI.

Source: MIT Technology Review

Dr. Etzioni seems comfortable claiming that 25 years into the future is beyond the foreseeable horizon. But for many of us who plan to make it through another quarter of a century, the prediction is a bit disturbing. We have a significant need to trust these expert opinions. Who else can we trust? These people are talking about the things they excel in, right? It appears different. In a particularly interesting paper, “How We’re Predicting AI — or Failing To” from the Machine Intelligence Research Institute, the authors explored 95 AGI expert predictions, spanning from the 1950s to 2012, and compared them to forecasts made by non-experts, writers, journalists, etc. And here’s what they found.

Source: How We’re Predicting AI—or Failing To

Not only do the predictions of experts contradict each other, many forecasts differing by 50 years, non-expert predictions aren’t outlying! In fact, they are relatively similar to each other: “There does not seem to be any visible difference between expert and non-expert performance either, suggesting that the same types of reasoning may be used in both situations, thus negating the point of expertise.” - authors of the paper say. It’s up to everybody to decide who to trust, but maybe there’s an immanent reason that prevents experts from making unambiguous estimations.

Evolution is a bad metaphor when it comes to tech

The evolution of a species is often exploited to metaphorically describe how technologies develop. And its main point – survival of the fittest – stands as the analogy with market selection. It rewards most adapted products and penalizes the rest. Although intelligent design seems more purposeful than random mutation, it impacts the velocity of change but doesn’t ruin the comparison itself. Every invention is constrained by cultural, psychological, economic, and ultimately technological circumstances. They act as a selective environment. This sort of reasoning makes us conceive of the upgrade from ANI to AGI as a linear and inevitable result of technological evolution. It will take some trial and error, but eventually we’ll be there. However, not all characteristics are similar. Even more than that, there’s one little difference that messes up all predictions. Let’s talk about cats. First of all, they are cute, but also cats are a good way to showcase how the evolution of species is different from technology development. Here’s a little insight into the evolutionary tree. All these cats had one ancestor more than 10 million years ago, and now they live and evolve within their separate and sometimes quite distant evolutionary branches. And let’s draw a similar conclusion for the thing which was invented for nothing else but taking pictures of and making funny videos of cats–smartphones. There are a few other technologies that contributed to smartphones as we know them today. But this is enough to show how striking the difference is. Back in 1989, George Basalla from the University of Delaware exposed the similarities and differences between biological evolution and technology development in his book The Evolution of Technology.  Basalla argues that, despite many similarities, one of the major disanalogies is that distant evolutionary species never interbreed. You couldn’t cultivate a cat that has a fur pattern like a tiger, because you wouldn't be able to mate a tiger with a domestic cat. In terms of evolution, their branches on the evolutionary tree are too far away from each other. But technologies always “interbreed.” Intelligent design finds relatively simple ways to build connective layers between technologies that seemed so distant before. If you look again at the second graph, you’ll see how intricate the connections between various technologies are. We also can’t rely on Moore’s law that describes the exponential growth of computing to say that this logic applies to inventions. Using Donald Rumsfeld’s words, the technologies that contribute to an invention and the ways they connect are those “unknown unknowns” that we can’t estimate. Well, if any invention, AGI included, sits at the junction of multiple enabling technologies, can we at least assume these enablers?

What are the enablers?

The scientists surveyed for Bostrom’s paper named multiple research approaches that might contribute the most to AGI invention. More than one selection was possible.

Source: Future Progress in Artificial Intelligence: A Survey of Expert Opinion

As the authors note, there’s neither significant difference between groups, nor are there relevant correlations between the answers given and the accompanying time predictions that we’ve mentioned before. So, it’s more guesswork here than substantial assessment. Of interest though is that many approaches revolve around deeper understanding of human cognitive specifics and building machine learning algorithms based on them. So, let’s talk about these.

Deep neural networks

Perhaps the most hyped branch of machine learning is deep learning. It was used in AlphaGo, IBM Watson, and basically in most systems that make headlines in tech magazines today. The main idea behind deep learning is to build something like the brain, specifically to imitate the ways organic neurons work. It sounds promising, but in reality, we used brain-cell architecture as a source of inspiration rather than just copying them, let alone making them as effective. Deep neural networks consist of multiple layers of virtual neurons – a sort of mathematical operation. As an input signal arrives at the first layer, some of neurons – the ones that recognize specific features of this input – fire and send their responses to the higher level as an output. There, the other set of features is recognized. This operation continues until the signal reaches the top layer, which narrows the signal to a final, decisive output. If we use a deep neural network for image recognition, for instance, the first layer looks for some particular sets of shapes (feature maps), the second, and another one, and so on, till the network reaches the highest level of abstraction to categorize objects that it sees. The process is well described in AI Experiments by Google “What Neural Networks See.” While tasks can vary, the same principles apply to other things that deep learning can do. For instance, DeepMind, the guys behind AlphaGo, designed a WaveNet neural network that can recognize patterns in sounds and voices, which allows them to convert text into speech highly resemblant of the original speaker. Most deep neural networks consist of six or seven layers with some of them reaching up to 30. Still, this bears no comparison to organic brains with billions of neurons.

Can we scale deep neural networks?

That’s a big problem. Scientists can’t just stack up layers until they get something intelligent. Constructing these layers and defining how they should interact with each other is an extraordinary task, which becomes even more challenging as we keep adding layers to the network. Another part of the problem of going “deeper” is that the signal that travels through these layers tends to fade as the number of layers grows. A record-breaker here is the research team from Microsoft that managed to build a deep residual network consisting of 152 layers. The trick is to skip some layers if they aren’t needed and use them when they are. This helps preserve signal and reach a notable result of high object classification accuracy. Also, researchers applied a semi-automated system that helped them find the working arrangements for the network, instead of manually constructing it.

Source: Deep Residual Networks Deep Learning Gets Way Deeper

But even considering the ingenious ways of scaling deep neural networks, we have a pretty narrow span of tasks in which to employ them. Basically, they fit well into three main categories: operations with images, speech, and text. No matter how deep neural networks get, they are still very task-specific. “When you look at something like AlphaGo, it's often portrayed as a big success for deep learning, but it's actually a combination of ideas from several different areas of AI and machine learning: deep learning, reinforcement learning, self-play, Monte Carlo tree search, etc.” - says Pedro Domingos, a professor of computer science from the University of Wisconsin. Deep learning is a powerful enabler but it’s definitely not the only one that may contribute to AGI.

Brain reverse engineering

Why don’t we approach the problem from the other side? Instead of scaling from simple analogies of brain operations, we can take a brain and try to imitate its structure altogether. Connectome is a relatively new concept that implies mapping the whole brain and all neuron connections in it. The approach seems reasonably straightforward. Scientists take some organic brain, slice it to thin layers, and using an electronic microscope try to make a virtual brain model that simulates the real activity. Today we can simulate genuinely complex systems with many variables like hurricanes, for example. If we apply supercomputers able to process big data, this seems feasible. But let’s come back down to Earth. So far, connectome studies have achieved definite results with only one creature. This guy.

Source: Wikipedia

This is Caenorhabditis elegans, a little worm whose brain was sliced and mapped back in 1986. About 20 years later, Dmitri Chklovskii of Janelia Farm Research Campus and his collaborators released the final version of the map. C.elegans has only 302 neurons with 7000 connections, synapses, between them, not very impressive compared to human brains, since we have 86 billion neurons and 100 trillion synapses. So, one cubic millimeter of a brain mapped with sufficiently high resolution requires about two million gigabytes of data. But the sad part of it isn’t only the amount of computing storage and power to emulate activity. We have another problem – interpretability. Currently, scientists can understand how C.elegans’ brain responds to temperature, some chemicals, mechanical stimuli, and a number of other qualities. The research took decades and it seems now that we have underestimated the complexity of the brain. When you start analyzing behaviors that are more complex than reflexes, the interpretability of organic neural networks becomes an extraordinary barrier. Not only does the strength of connections between neurons vary, but also, they dynamically change each day. We don’t know exactly how neuromodulators would alter the simulation, how feedback loops that wire neurons together work, and so on. There are also several research groups that try to simulate little chunks of human brain, specifically to recreate visual recognition. But still, brain reverse engineering hasn’t achieved much on the way to building actual intelligence. Today scientists struggle to understand basic processes at the micro level.

Brute computing force

Another important AGI enabler is computing force. Regardless of the path we take, emulating the brain or advancing in complex artificial neural networks, we need to process unprecedented amounts of data. That is the most successful branch of development. The hype around machine learning and big data is mostly due to the growing computing capacity. A famous AlphaGo in its distributed version runs on 1202 CPUs and 176 GPUs. It’s not the most powerful one but the numbers say that we can certainly stack up hardware to increase computing power. The leading supercomputer in the world, for instance, has more than 10.5 million cores. It can do up to 93 trillion calculations per minute, which according to some estimates exceeds that of a human brain, and covers 720 square meters of space. And the Moore’s law that we talked about before still stands, regardless of some declaring its death. So, when it comes to emulating brain activity, we will find hardware to run it. Check!

What should we be afraid of?

Despite all skepticism infused into this story, there’s one positive point. Making predictions about AGI and its consequences is obviously romanticizing the science that stands behind artificial intelligence. But the real impact of AI doesn’t lurk somewhere beyond the horizon. It’s already here. We don’t need artificial general intelligence to reshape the ways we live. It takes some visionary thinking to expand the meaning of ANI. Narrow intelligence can already cope with many jobs that humans do. We’ve recently covered how chatbots can replace entire departments in insurance companies. For example, 3.5 million USA truckers may lose their jobs to autonomous vehicles in that country only.  And according to McKinsey, technologies can automate 45 percent of work that people do for money. It’s not a reason to suddenly become Luddites though. Much effort and thought is applied to adapting the economy for the automation era. This happened before and resulted in the growing level of education, which catalyzed the shift from manual and repetitive jobs to more creative and complex ones. We should prepare for another round of it. This story is a part of our new Reality Check series. We would be happy to receive your feedback on it to know whether you like it and whether we should move on with the series. If you look for business-oriented AI coverage, try our machine learning strategy story.