new name, new accent, same old singularity…

March 27, 2012

When a former experimental developer like Ray Kurzweil forecasts that computers will soon awaken and rise to become smarter than their human handlers, you can see why he would make this argument. After all, if you go strictly by pop sci press, you will think that robots are taking over all human jobs, and we’re oh so close to unlocking the secrets of consciousness and memory. Having become an armchair computers scientist years ago and profiting by starting a movement of those anticipating the coming AI Rapture, while somehow still remaining an influential atheist, he doesn’t know better, to be blunt. Probe his predictions any farther than the surface and you’ll see that despite his claims of constant study, he hasn’t done any research into very real and well known problems with his big ideas, as demonstrated very clearly by his genome-to-brain flap. And this is why his record of successfully predicting future tech trends is abysmal. But what do we make of a serious, well published AI researcher giving a TED talk about the Omega Point, a time when his inventions will simply take over and figure out all the complex and interesting scientific phenomena we just can’t seem to crack?

If you haven’t heard anything about cutting edge computers being used by scientists to crunch data in new and useful ways or keep track of all the papers being generated by their colleagues, Jürgen Schmidhuber will sound very convincing, especially when he talks about the sheer volume of data that can be processed by a computer and how easily it can be programmed to tease out relationships between individual points of odd or otherwise interesting values. But the truth of the matter is that he’s coming to his conclusions by simplifying what is actually involved in the process of making all these things work. Well duh, of course he’s simplifying a complex field, you might argue, it’s a TED talk! How complicated can you get in fifteen minutes about things it takes years to properly study? While that’s certainly true, the oversimplification in play here is one in his mind, not the result of having to compress his thoughts into a short presentation. He’s assuming that because you can build a machine that can crunch a lot of data and offer a lot of formulas you’ll have to sort through to find a promising one, or point to new areas of study after crunching immense amounts of data, you can summon a digital equivalent to Tesla or Einstein and outsource all your problems to this machine, calling the point when this should happen the Omega, and then admitting that it’s just a rehash of Singularity lore. We’ve seen why a good deal of Singularitarian thought on AI just doesn’t work before, and his overview is not much better and if anything, it’s more of a plug for his ambitious artificial neural network lab than anything else.

When you take a look at his work, you’ll see a lot of experiments with artificial neural networks to achieve fast, efficient memory utilization at runtime, or better reliability in existing classifiers, or hybridizing concepts from a couple of networks to come up with brand new ways of computing values for virtual neurons and their inputs, along with a number of papers on universal computing concepts. One paper may talk about optimizing how a particular ANN setup will crunch numbers faster, another will lay out formulas for how a machine would make a choice to modify itself or find an optimal solution to a particular problem. They’re all very interesting and well written, certainly something plenty of computer scientists could sink their teeth into for a while, but none of it is in any way, shape or form as close to getting him to build a virtual scientist as he says it does in his TED talk. He actually seems to be borrowing from Nick Bostrom’s concept of a self-emergent superintelligence, one of his loftier ideas about the future of computation emerging from his musings on the likelihood of us being a virtual experiment of an advanced species rather than existing in what one would call reality. Again, it’s great fodder for science fiction and makes for mind-blowing slideshows, but falls short when it comes to making all this actually work. If scientific knowledge we’ve accumulated so far never had to be updated and we knew with absolute certainty that everything we figured out by this point is absolutely correct and all peer-reviewed works could be safely taken at their word, we could at least entertain the notion. But we know that’s not the case.

[ story tip by Jordan ]

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  • Dan Frederiksen

    I wrote a comment to your 2009 article about ufology. you should find it enlightening.

    and yes Kurzweil isn’t terribly insightful.

  • Greg Fish

    You wrote a big stream of stuff I could easily find in a David Icke potboiler and started it with condescension that my doubts about random pronouncements about alien life with no tangible proof were comically stupid. But I’m glad you wanted me to read it so much you decided to take this post off topic with your first comment in hopes I’d notice it and be swayed by being insulted and drowned in off the wall claims…

  • Dan Frederiksen

    a hypocrite is one who dish it but can’t take it. you were quite condescending in your article. and unlike you I am actually right.

    try to deal with the issues I raised instead of unintelligently trying to label me David Icke as if that would somehow logically dismiss me by association. I am a lot smarter than Icke.

    if you want to be smart you have to deal with the evidence at hand. you have to explain how admirals, generals, colonels, FAA senior officials, airline pilots say that UFOs are real beyond any doubt.

    you should also deal with for instance harvard psychiatrist John E Mack who has examined and interviewed abductees at length and found them sane and sincere and that they tell a consistent story with many details that are not part of pop culture and the phenomenon differs sharply from scifi.

    if you can handle that I can tell you about AI as well. I’m the one person in the world who can do that too. AI was my first intellectual love and I quit it when I got too good at it because the world isn’t really ready for intelligent machines that would just be put to military use and the sheep of the world has no mind to object to such evils. case in point the Iraq war based on obvious lies, half the people applaud it and the other half just stays silent

  • Russ Toelke

    *head spins*

    Usually, in my experience, someone who has to proclaim “I’m right” is spending too much time trying to convince himself.

    If you’re right, we really won’t need you telling us that, hmmm’kay?

  • Greg Fish

    try to deal with the issues I raised…

    Why should I deal with a random barrage of claims? My “condescension” consisted of saying that a single physical artifact is worth more than all the eyewitness accounts, interviews, and reports in the world. For example, we know that a lot of experimental spy aircraft have been reported as UFOs and the CIA encouraged those reports because they provided such a great smokescreen.

    When AF officers say they saw UFOs, my first question is whether they were actually seeing experimental craft instead. Show me a piece of a spaceship of clearly alien origins and let me test it, and I’ll be swayed that you have a point. Although not your ruminations on alien societies and lifespans. Those sound like they were ripped from from a 1980s sci-fi novel.

    AI was my first intellectual love and I quit it when I got too good at it…

    You must be joking. Really. Just come clean, you’re messing with me, right? But oh what the hell, please do tell me “about AI,” by all means. If you had to quit because you’re such an expert in the field, you could certainly teach me a few things since I’m nowhere near good enough to contemplate quitting as not to bore myself with my sheer greatness in comp sci.

  • Dan Frederiksen

    [ off-topic part of comment and rest of discussion thread moved here ]

    and no I’m not kidding you on AI. I’m the one who can do it. and I said IF you can handle the ET situation. I can tell you about reinforcement learning strategies suitable for real world high dimension continuously valued state spaces and unsupervised learning principles that scale to scifi level AI. but would you understand any of it.

    my approach was based on neural nets. relatively trivial extensions. AI is surprisingly easy, relatively speaking. but mankind is stupid and the sheep move on to crappy bayesian nets and pretend neural nets are not worthy. show me a rational analysis of just this single UFO case and I’ll tell you the secrets of AI

  • Greg Fish

    AI is surprisingly easy, relatively speaking. but mankind is stupid and the sheep move on to crappy bayesian nets and pretend neural nets are not worthy.

    And right away after all the posturing you say that we’ve abandoned neural nets when the post right above you references cutting edge work in neural nets. Let me just save you some time. You don’t know nearly as much about machine learning as you seem to think you do. Now either put up or shut up. If you have some sort of point to make in response to the actual post, go ahead and make it.