The Rise of Machine Intelligence

* Originally published in the BNA Bulletin Autumn 2020

A Story of Mind and Machine  

Humans went from splitting stones to splitting uranium atoms. Our evolutionary journey is a mark of incredible intelligence that pulled us out of our caves and into the land, where we’ve built glittering empires of steel and glass. We've unfurled the limits of intelligence further than ever before. But in our journey to master Medicine, Science and the Arts, have we pushed the limits of intelligence too far beyond our reach; away from Mind and into Machine?

Algorithmic Intelligence

Advances in current machine intelligence come from reducing complex human behaviours into a series of steps. Algorithms connect these steps, mapping every input to an expected output. And it does so with revolutionary success. Some AI algorithms have identified new antibiotic molecules that show little resistance. Other algorithms have extended the reach of medical care that was otherwise limited by humans; powering robots in Wuhan to autonomously move around hospitals, cleaning wards and delivering food and drugs to patients.

The doctor will see you now...

These successes conjure imaginations of sentient robots outsmarting, outwitting and outperforming humans. However, the very term ‘artificial’ betrays that imagination. Intelligence generally seems to be a function of organic life, not of inorganic tools. It was Da Vinci’s mind, not his chisel which he skillfully employed, that was a mark of intelligence. AI, far from a future Frankenstein nightmare, is simply a tool at our disposal. Its “intelligence” stems from human interpretation of its data; making sense of the 0s and 1s and blurred pixels.

A Grey Future

This is not to diminish the impact of AI, which through data processing and pattern spotting, has already furthered our collective understanding. And there is little doubt machine intelligence will transform our lives in the future, accelerating our learning and understanding of the universe around us. But it will only do so on our command, written along our codes. 

The tighter we knit ourselves with technology, the starker the disparity between the two threads of mind and machine becomes. Future humans will not become obsolete because not all actions are reducible to black and white binary. Our highest level performance is found in the subtle grey.

Ultimately, minds can be algorithmic but algorithms cannot become minds.
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