Oxford Neuroscientist Answers Whether Avengers: Age of Ultron Predicts the Future of Artificial Intelligence

Friday, 01 May 2015 - 1:00PM
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Friday, 01 May 2015 - 1:00PM
Oxford Neuroscientist Answers Whether Avengers: Age of Ultron Predicts the Future of Artificial Intelligence
Avengers: Age of Ultron comes out in the U.S. today, and adds one more to the long list of films that explore our anxieties surrounding artificial intelligence, particularly AI that equals or surpasses human intelligence. But how close are we to realizing an AI that is actually conscious? And even once we realize that oft-explored sci-fi trope, how realistic is Ultron specifically? Oxford neuroscientist and AI expert Dr. Simon Stringer sat down with Screenrant and essentially claimed that "artificial consciousness" like Ultron would be decades away, but it may very well happen.

First Springer explains that artificial "intelligence" is now ubiquitous, especially thanks to bots like Apple's Siri. We should really refer to speculative AI as "artificial consciousness," as conscious thought is the aspect of the human brain that we haven't yet replicated in technology.

"It's not even whether something's alive or not that endows it with special status, it's whether it's conscious," Springer said, making the point that plants are alive, but as they don't have consciousness, they have no ethical status or consideration within the conversation about artificial intelligence.

The goal of that conversation, according to Springer, is to "replicate the ability of the brain to make sense of the world," which we have not yet been able to do, especially considering that we don't really understand how the brain works. As a result, even the most advanced robots right now aren't able to understand very basic things that the human brain can.

"If you showed them a higgledy-piggledy pile of machine parts they couldn't differentiate the different parts, so they can't reach in and pick up particular parts and handle them," said Springer.

Artificial intelligence has certainly made major strides recently, between existential Siri, the Google AI that is on par with humans at image recognition, and computers that can write their own fables. On the robotics side, we the four-legged Boston Dynamics bots that look so lifelike they prompted this hilarious parody video about "robot abuse." We even have robot assistants that can approximate/imitate "personality" with snarky remarks and amusing quips. But Springer confirms that we're still a long way from creating anything other than a pale imitation of consciousness.

"I listen to engineers all the time talking about their conscious machines, their conscious creations, and at the moment it's all baloney. Trying to create artificial consciousness by building practical robots right now is like trying to reach the moon by adding rungs to a stepladder instead of investing in rocket science."

But in spite of this sentiment, Springer is not pessimistic about the prospects of artificial consciousness. He claims that his goal is to help create an AI that is slightly more intelligent than a mouse within the next couple of decades, and then once AI research reaches that threshold, there will be an exponential explosion in the field of artificial intelligence.

"Once we get the basic principles, then you'll find the Apples and the Microsofts and the Googles pouring billions into this technology. Then you'll see an ignition point… We'll know what we're doing, and we'll know how to scale it up."

This all refers to artificial intelligence in general, but Springer claims that Joss Whedon's depiction of Ultron, in particular, could happen in real life. Ultron is different from some other depictions of AI as perfectly logical and rational, as he is portrayed as sarcastic, irrational, and somewhat insane. According to Springer, since the goal of artificial intelligence is essentially to create a mechanical human brain, then the AI would be subject to all of the deficiencies and mental illnesses of a human brain. He envisions that future AI could potentially be programmed to have depression, schizophrenia, and/or the mental symptoms of autism.

"If you're trying to replicate the human brain I wouldn't be at all surprised if you endowed the machines with all sorts of idiosyncrasies."
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