Superstition in Retreat

Once upon a time, everything was magic.

Why did lightning crack and the earth quake? The gods were angry.

Why did some go crazy? Demons possessed them.

Why did some prosper? They had done good in a past life, or the gods favored them.

But others were too curious to take “magic” for an answer. Despite error and opposition, they each played their own small part in unweaving the rainbow, and many found the truth inside more beautiful than the mystery.

Millions still insisted on the supernatural. Our brains are built for superstition, after all. Religion is natural; science and probability theory are not. Hyperactive agency detection, cognitive biases, and all that.

But astronomers predicted eclipses the witch doctors could not, and doctors healed those the priests could not. After much resistance, the supernaturalists gave up the motion of stars and planets to physics. Later, they gave up disease to germs and viruses. They gave up élan vital to biology and biochemistry. They gave up mental illness to neuropsychology. Magical explanations shrank from the light of science: superstition in retreat.

Tim Minchin said it well:

Every mystery ever solved has turned out to be . . . not magic.1

It is in the dark corners of human ignorance—cosmic origins, consciousness, intelligence—that magical thinking festers. William James held it in contempt:

When one turns to the magnificent edifice of the physical sciences, and sees how it was reared; what thousands of disinterested moral lives of men lie buried in its mere foundations; what patience and postponement, what choking down of preference, what submission to the icy laws of outer fact are wrought into its very stones and mortar . . . then how besotted and contemptible seems every little sentimentalist who comes blowing his voluntary smoke-wreaths, and pretending to decide things from out of his private dream!2

Even scientists and reductionists can be caught in magical thinking, for we all have cached thoughts; the human brain doesn’t automatically propagate belief updates throughout its entire web of beliefs. Thus you can catch a neuroscientist saying that consciousness will turn out to not be made of atoms. Thus you catch psychologists saying that humans may yet have contra-causal free will, unlike every other animal and in contradiction to the laws of physics.

Thus, you can catch philosophers saying that machines cannot think, computer scientists acting as if human intelligence represents an upper bound on intelligence, and AI researchers thinking that machines will only become more benevolent as they become smarter.

Let us turn to just one of these—the idea that human “general” intelligence is special, and cannot be duplicated by a machine—and observe superstition in retreat.

Ray Kurzweil included the following cartoon in his book from 1999:3

In Kurzweil’s cartoon, a man representing the human race frantically lists tasks that only human intelligence can perform, but they fall to the floor almost as quickly as he can tape them to the wall. Machines can now compose music, play chess and Jeopardy!, understand continuous speech, pick stocks, guide missiles, recognize faces, diagnose health problems, and so much more. When Kurzweil published the cartoon, machines could not drive cars, but now they can.

It’s true that there are many things machines cannot yet do, but those who use these facts to defend the unreachable specialness of human intelligence remind me of those who point to the mysteries of consciousness or cosmic origins to defend the existence of God. It’s a losing battle.

Yes, writing novels and doing science feel like things that only humans can do, because in four billion years of life on Earth only humans have ever done it. But remember: for 99.99995% of that history, no species wrote novels or did science. In hindsight, it will look like the human brain was the first of many mind architectures that could write novels and do science, and only by an inconsequential margin of a few thousand years.

In fact, the “doing science” task is already being handed to machines. In 2009 a robot named Adam was programmed with our scientific knowledge about yeast, and then posed its own hypotheses, tested them, assessed the results, and made original scientific discoveries.4 The same team is now working on an even more powerful AI scientist named Eve.5

AI is coming. It must come, if scientific progress continues, because intelligence (efficient cross-domain optimization) runs on information processing, and human meat is not the only platform for information processing. This is why we can build machines to play chess, compose music, and do science, and it is why we can also create human-level “general” machine intelligence.

* * *

1Tim Minchin, Tim Minchin’s Storm the Animated Movie, prod. Tracy King, dir. DC Turner (April 11, 2011), http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HhGuXCuDb1U.

2William James, The Will to Believe, and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy (New York: Longmans, Green, 1807), accessed November 10, 2012, http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/26659.

3Ray Kurzweil, The Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence (New York: Viking, 1999).

4Ross D. King, “Rise of the Robo Scientists,” Scientific American 304, no. 1 (2011): 72–77, doi:10.1038/scientificamerican0111-72.

5David Mosher, “Developer of Robot Scientist Wants to Standardize Science,” Wired, April 13, 2011, http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2011/04/robot-scientist-language/.