Saturday, May 12, 2018

AI without a capacity for emotional response is probably not going to be actual artificial intelligence

Relevant to an unfortunately not-yet-written piece about ghosts in the shell old and new and on why the old "classic" film has a dead on arrival premise in its final act reveal ... something from the Washington Post about why artificial intelligence absent a capacity for affect (i.e. emotion) is probably never going to happen.  Cue up potential discussions of season 1 of HBO's Westworld for those who would want to do that.

Technologists across the world have frantically embarked on the quest to create a new species in our own image — general artificial intelligence with superior computational brain power. But we are only just beginning to understand the foundations of human intelligence and consciousness that cannot be captured in an algorithmic formula divorced from the functions of the body and the long evolution of our species and its microbiome.
As the celebrated neuroscientist Antonio Damasio argues in a WorldPost interview based on his new book, “The Strange Order of Things,” it is the feelings and emotions, which originated and dwell in that biological terrain, that are constitutive of human intelligence, consciousness and the capacity for cultural creation. In short, a map of the computational mind is not the territory of what it means to be human. [emphasis added]
“Our minds operate in two registers,” Damasio explains. “In one register, we deal with perception, movement, memories, reasoning, verbal languages and mathematical languages. This register needs to be precise and can be easily described in computational terms. This is the world of synaptic signals that is well captured by AI and robotics.”
“But there is a second register,” he continues, “that pertains to emotions and feelings that describes the state of life in our living body and that does not lend itself easily to a computational account. Current AI and robotics do not address this second register.”
For Damasio, the biological mechanisms behind feeling — “what we now call pain and pleasure” — were survival strategies selected and combined in the simple cell organisms of early evolution “when there was no individual suffering or reason.” He calls this process “homeostasis, which aims at the management of a living organism such that it can meet current energy needs and have enough energy in reserve to respond to stress and continue into the future. Homeostasis counters thermodynamic decay.” It is this capacity to not only survive but to thrive going forward that Damasio identifies as “the monitors and arbiters of cultural invention.”
“Minds,” concludes Damasio, “are not made by nervous systems alone but rather by nervous systems in cooperation with many other and far older living systems of our body, including metabolic, endocrine, immune and circulatory systems. Nervous systems are late-comers in evolution. They are useful servants of the older life systems. Nervous systems have declared a considerable degree of independence relative to the older systems they serve but they are by no means free of those older systems. They do not stand alone. Unfortunately, conventional conceptions of mind are based on the idea that nervous systems make minds by themselves.”
To the extent the intelligent mind is biologically embodied, it is swimming in the vast sea of the human microbiome. As Tobias Rees and Nils Gilman point out, “few are aware of how directly these microbes and their genes affect the functioning of our bodies. The human genome found in the nuclei of our cells contains roughly 20,000 genes, but the microbiome — the sum total of genetic material in the microorganisms that live in and on us — contains as many as 20 million genes, all of which are directly or indirectly interacting with and at times even controlling our genes.”
Indeed, researchers at CalTech recently discovered that bacteria found in the guts of mice produce serotonin, a biochemical neurotransmitter that regulates emotions and adult neurogenesis — the formation of new neurons which are the basis for openness and adaptability to outside stimulus and experience.
The authors worry that modern-day diets, C-section births and overuse of broad-spectrum antibiotics are degrading the integrity of the microbiome, established over millennia of evolution with unintended consequences for the emotional and physical wellbeing of humans. “The lesson of the human microbiome,” they conclude, “is that it compels us to revise our understanding of ourselves as humans: Microbes are us. In fact, it is impossible to clearly determine where a human being ends and its microbiome begins: there is a quintessential indistinguishability. We humans are not more than mere nature. In fact, we are just that — a piece of nature, deeply interrelated with the microbial environment on which we are utterly contingent.” [emphasis added]

A couple of friends and relatives over the years have commented about their skepticism about the proliferation of C-section births.  Some folks I know regard the frequency with which C-sections are urged upon women to be a whole racket in itself.  I don't think I'll comment on that because it's not something I have any direct stake in but it is interesting to have heard from women I love among family and friends that they have felt over their course of their lives as wives and mothers that a whole lot of the medical industry seems geared foremost toward what's bureaucratically optimal for the industry and not for the woman or her children. 

To put it mildly, a concept like a microbiome as a foundation for artificial intelligence has not been on the table for most sci-fi ruminations on the topic.  Even the original Oshii Ghost in the Shell could only have accounted for it by sheer accident of not addressing it thereby allowing fans of the film to impute it decades later.  But at some point I have to gear up the willpower to finish writing some version of that comparison of the two ghosts in the shell to highlight what's tragicomically off about both films.  Meanwhile, a bit of reading for a weekend. 

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