Limits to Human Understanding

This blog post was motivated by an article in the New Scientist1, “Higher State of Mind” by Douglas Heaven.  It raised the question of limits to human understanding, a topic of longstanding interest to myself.  The article reviews two paths Artificial Intelligence has taken.  One approach involved rule-based programming.  Typically the objective here was to model human information processing with the goal of having the computer “think” like a human.  This approach proved quite valuable in the development of cognitive science, as it identified problems that needed to be addressed in the development of theories and models of human information processing.   Unfortunately, it was not very successful in solving complex computational problems.
The second approach eschewed the modeling of the human and focused on developing computational solutions to difficult problems.  Machines were programed to learn and to compute statistical correlations  and inferences by studying patterns in vast amounts of data.  Neural nets were developed that successfully solved a large variety of complex computational problems.  However, although the developers of these neural nets could describe the neural net they themselves had programmed, they could not understand  how the conclusion was made.  Although they can solve a problem, they are unable to truly understand the problem.  So, there are areas of expertise where machines can be said to know not only more than we do, but also know more than we are capable of understanding.  In other words, what we can understand  may be constrained by our biological limitations.
So, what does the future hold for us?  There is an optimistic scenario and a pessimistic scenario.  According to Kurzweil a singularity will be achieved by transcending biology and we shall augment ourselves with genetic alterations,  nanotechnolgy, and machine learning.  He sees a time when we shall become immortal.  In fact, he thinks that this singularity is close enough that he is doing everything to extend his life so that he shall achieve this immortality.  This notion of a singularity was first introduced in the fifties by the mathematician John von Neuman.
A pessimistic scenario has been sketched  out by Bill Joy.  I find his name  a bit ironic.  He has written a piece titled, “Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us”  where he argues that technology might be making us an endangered species.
So these are two extremes.  A somewhat less extreme scenario was outlined in the movie, Collosus:  the Forbin Project, which was based on a novel by Dennis Feltham Jones, Collus.  The story takes place during the cold war with the confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union.  The United States has built a complex sophisticated computer, the Collosus to manage the country’s defenses in the event of a nuclear war.  Shortly after the Collosus becomes operational, it established contact with a similar computer built by the Soviet Union.  These two systems agree that humans are not intelligent enough to manage their own affairs, so they eventually hey take over the control of the world.
So what does the future hold for us?  Who knows?

© Douglas Griffith and, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


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