Intellectronics and living computers

The Polish writer Stanislaw Lem (1921-2006) is one of the most influential science-fiction visionaries of all time. Mostly known for his novel Solaris (1961), which was later made into a film by Andrei Tarkovsky, Lem has been prolific in his fiction, often blending social satire with engineering fantasy. Space travel, human contact with alien intelligence and societies of robots are among his most favorite subjects. Lem has written non-fiction as well, such as the monumentalSumma Technologiae (1964), a reference to Summa Theologiae by Thomas Aquinas.

(Left: Stanislaw Lem (1921-2006))

In Summa Technologiae Lem speculates and philosophizes on prospective social, cybernetic and biological advances. What is of particular interest to AI is a chapter entitled “Intellectronics” where Lem discusses the concept of what he calls the “intelligence amplifier”.

The intelligence amplifier would be similar to existing machines that amplify human physical strength, for example cares, excavators, airplanes or cranes. A human connected via a suitable control system to an intelligent amplifier would be able to increase her IQ by many factors. Lem envisions intelligence amplifiers that could turn a person of average intelligence (100-110 on current IQ tests) to a super genius with an IQ of 10,000!

One could argue that intelligence amplifiers already exist – they are called “computers”. Computers increase our capacity for calculations manifold, with monumental and historical consequences in the way our civilization, our economy and our society evolves. They truly “amplify” our intelligence, collective and individual.

But Lem means something deeper than that. In comparing the IQ of the personwith the IQ of the person-plus-machine he suggests that the machine itself must be intelligent. In fact, just like a crane is more powerful than its human operator an intelligence amplifier must be more intelligent too!

The problem that Lem aptly identifies in the design of such a superintellgent machine is the obvious: the machine would have to be more intelligent than its designer. From a classical engineering perspective this means that one cannot develop design specifications (how can you describe what intelligence higher than yours can do and how it thinks?), and therefore one cannot even begin to imagine how this machine would be like, let alone how  to control it. This is of course a paradox that strong AI faces when dreaming of “machine superintelligence”, i.e. machines smarter than humans that would, supposedly, usher us into the era of “AI Singularity”. One only wishes they will be friendly, or else…

Interestingly, in Intellectronics Lem suggests an exit from the superintelligence engineering conundrum. Instead of electronics he proposes the search for new substances, building materials which in certain aspects are similar to living organisms.

Forty-seven years after the writing of Summa Technologiae researchers in Caltech have invented a method for designing systems of DNA molecules whose interactions simulate the behaviour of simple artificial neural networks.

The researchers based their biochemical neural network on a simplified model of a neuron. The model neuron receives input signals, multiplies each by a positive or negative weight, and only if the weighted sum of inputs surpass a certain threshold does the neuron fire, producing an output. The model was built by synthesizing DNA strands in a test tube, i.e. a real “computing soup”!

Lulu Qian, the lead author of the paper (see reference) posed the main theoretical question of the research thus: “Instead of having a physically-connected network of neural cells, can a soup of interacting molecules exhibit brain-like behaviour?”

Although the invention is far from having practical applications any time soon, it could have a future in nanodrug design. More interestingly however, the Caltech invention explores notions of computability in living systems. As Qian explained in Science Daily, “Before the brain evolved, single-celled organisms were also capable of processing information, making decisions, and acting in response to their environment. The source of such complex behaviors must have been a network of molecules floating around in the cell. Perhaps the highly evolved brain and the limited form of intelligence seen in single cells share a similar computational model that’s just programmed in different substrates.”

It is a theory worth testing, and certain to have made Lem smile were he alive today. Unlocking the secrets of biological computation may indeed be the way to building the intelligence amplifier that the Polish novelist dreamt of, so many years ago.

Journal Reference: Lulu Qian, Erik Winfree, Jehoshua Bruck. Neural network computation with DNA strand displacement cascades. Nature, 2011; 475 (7356): 368 DOI: 10.1038/nature10262


Animism and AI

Animism transcends all human culture. It is considered the proto-religion of our species, the first explanation we humans had about the workings of the world. Animism comes from our cognitive inability to distinguish between our psyche and the external world of animate and inanimate objects (read my post of Piaget’s relevant theory here). It is therefore of fundamental importance if we are to understand our relationship with artifacts that move, speak, or think.

With time, animism transformed to more sophisticated explanations that we today recognize as religion. A key characteristic of this transformation, at least in Europe, was the gradual anthropomorphing of animistic souls and powers. Thunder became Zeus; Earthquakes Engeladus; Fire Hephaestus, the Sun formed into handsome Apollo, and so on. Although there were still zoomorphic monsters out there and chimeras of all description, pantheism, as evolved in pre-classical Greece, attributed conscious and human-like intentions to everything in nature.

(Left: A robot made in Greece)

The Olympian human-like gods ended up ruling over everyone and everything. Although in Greek proto-religion creation occurs through the union of the primal elements,  the Male-Sky and the Female-Earth, the Olympians (image reflections of humanity “below”) were now capable to giving life too. They could create animated artifacts, like Hephaestus who poured the golden life-blood of the gods (“ιχώρ” in Greek, pronounced “ichor”) into Talos, the metallic man placed in the service of King Minos of Crete. Animism, as developed through pantheism, arrived at an intermediate position of human-like gods inculcating life, and consciousness, into things.

The invention of democracy in classical Athens (6th century BC) changed the relationship between gods and humans forever. Subjects became citizens, a novel political breed with the right to decide their destiny through debating and voting. Now, there was no power superior to the will of the people, which meant that  in a democracy human beings were truly free men, including free from the will or whim of gods. The Athenian democracy was far from atheist, but the degree of elevating human beings to the level of gods cannot be underestimated. The Parthenon’s friezes in the 5th century BC depicted Athenian youths riding their horses during the city’s greatest celebration. Till then temple friezes in Greece were reserved only for gods .

(Left: Automatic diversions by Heron in Hellenistic Alexandria)

The Hellenistic period that succeeded classical Greece went a step further: it sought to imitate gods by constructing animated machines. In ancient times “animation”, i.e. movement, was considered the principal characteristic of life. Life was by definition conscious because it had intention; and intention was expressed through movement. Movement was the “Turing Test” of the ancient world.

Engineers in Alexandria build machines that moved, mechanical clocks, steam engines, copper birds that sung. Those machines were still used and displayed in the Eastern Mediterranean centuries later, when Greek-speaking Christian emperors ruled in Constantinople. Their ideology was much different. Medieval Christianity, particularly in the East, frowned upon engineering, or the practical application of any knowledge.  Knowledge ought to be kept “pure” and for the sake of worshiping God; applying knowledge to an end was regarded as a sinful. The mechanical automata of Byzantium were meant to impress diplomatic missions from the empire’s periphery, not to compete or imitate the life-giving power of the now One – and Only – God.

(Left: Following on the tradition of building machines that move.)

When Christianity was questioned in 15th centuryEurope and later, the thread that was lost since Hellenistic times was rediscovered. Retro-animism in the sense of reanimating dead matter resurfaced, as alchemical, as automata, and in the ensuing industrial revolution as the construction of machines that replaced human workers. But the ideology of the Hellenistic engineers was forgotten No one remembered the psychological and religious roots of the call. Economic utility was now the principal, and sufficient, reason for engineering machines that moved, spun, pumped, steamed and worked.

This modern, utilitarian ideology still holds true today. AI researchers, when we aim to build an intelligent machine, we do not aspire to imitate godly powers. Presumably many of us, if not most, do not believe in a god to begin with. We want – at the very least – to do some interesting research that will help people and business, and – when real ambition kicks in – to solve one of the greatest mysteries of all time; consciousness.

Nevertheless, although these objectives may appear detached and “scientific”, I would argue that understanding a deeper requirement for strong AI that seems to stem from primal animism may inform the scientific quest for artificial consciousness better and, perhaps, resolve a paradox in its objectives.

For it is often argued that building a machine that thinks is not such a useful application after all. Machines are better than humans because they do things without “thinking”, or “feeling”, or being “conscious” of themselves. There is not an apparent added utility in replacing a naturally conscious agent with an artificial one; except when extreme environmental issues are at play, for instance if the conscious artificial agent must operate in a hazardous environment or independently for prolonged periods of time (e.g. in deep-space travel). However, the benefits from such applications are marginal when judged under the light of scarce research resources that could be better deployed to solve the bigger problems of the world. Perhaps, the deeper reason we want to create artificial consciousness is because we need to confirm our cognitive instinct that inanimate objects can think and have intentions too.

Ghosts in the machines

The Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget noted that in children’s’ minds there is an implicit understanding of the world in which all events are the product of consciousness or intention. Things happen for a reason and never by chance. Piaget’s discovery has tremendous repercussions in the way we understand ourselves and our relationship with the world. It is apparent that we humans are born with a cognitive inability to distinguish the external world from one’s own psyche. We are born with our consciousness embedded in a continuum that extends beyond our physical bodies. Evolutionary biology is at play here: the seamless connection of one’s mind to the environment promotes survival by automating fear responses. Quick reflexes are far superior to reflective cogitation when something moves in the dark. Asking what is out there would have been a fatal question in the living conditions of our hominid ancestors. Better to respond with an a priori hypothesis deeply embedded in the brain, that whatever is out there has intention and that this intention concerns me.

In this evolutionary wiring of our brains must lie the roots of animism, our common proto-religion. Early humans saw the workings of a conscious, all-pervading lifeforce in everything that surrounded them. There was a soul, or a spirit, or a ghost, in everything: in the animals they hunted, in the caves in which they lived, in the forest, in the water, everywhere. We still believe that, deep inside. Amazingly, contemporary developmental psychology has confirmed that we manage to distinguish between inanimate and animate objects only through learning. Our belief that inanimate objects and natural forces are soulless is acquired through living in a society that has evolved away from the dangers of savanna-living. It is a social skill. As such, it is constantly challenged by our deeper, cognitive systems.

(Left: She is beautiful. But is she “alive”?)

We dream of childhood in terms of innocence, and within this framework we become nostalgic of the period in our lives when toys would come alive in our imagination. It turns out that these toys were indeed alive. We did not imagine them so. Our brains evaluated them as living creatures. As adults we often approach robots in a child-like fashion. For anyone who has been next to a sophisticated human-like robot with sophisticated behavior, the feeling of seeing something with an intention is formidable. It seems to stem from deep inside our psyche. It is. Despite the technical obstacles and hiccups (See my post on “uncanny valley”) we will ultimately accept androids in our society because they will appeal to our deepest, most primal cognitive beliefs that machines with intentions must be “alive”, that they must have a soul just like ours.