Perception and Introspection

Ever find yourself staring out into a natural landscape, almost intoxicated by the immediate sensory experience, and suddenly find yourself ruminating thoroughly within your inner world? This happens to me a lot, and when I came upon views like this one along the cascade trail in the Jefferson National Forest in Pembroke, Virginia, I couldn’t seem to avoid drifting off introspectively all along the winding path leading to the Cascade Falls. Whenever these experiences occur, I often find myself trying to figure out just what it is about our human nature that provides me with such a richness and depth of compelling experience WITHIN…simply by being able to perceive the natural world.

Reading an article on the state of artificial intelligence this morning in the Wall Street Journal, I started thinking about the differences between the nature of that intelligence and the human variety, and decided to probe for myself the extent to which the artificial variety has become a part of my daily experience. Since there are a number of devices and services involved in most of our daily lives these days, which contain components and sources that rely on basic artificial intelligence principles in order to serve our needs and to function in real time, I wondered to what degree that presence was truly evident and useful.

The article in the CIO Journal blog by Tom Loftus talked about the difference between AI smart and human smart:

“To me, I think the fundamental issue is what I call deep understanding versus shallow understanding,” said Charles Elkan, managing director and global head of machine learning at Goldman Sachs. Shallow understanding is the ability to answer a limited range of questions that are similar to each other, he said. Deep understanding, he said, implies broad context and broad knowledge. “The entire spectrum of current algorithms that we know for AI are not going to scale to human intelligence, let alone super-intelligence.”

Since I am typing these words on my laptop computer, it is immediately apparent that my thoughts are being immediately recorded, constantly edited, and eventually refined to my satisfaction (usually) through a reasonably and artificially intelligent machine, which is connected wirelessly to a network device that is connected to a router permitting access to a world-wide web of other computers and routing devices, all seamlessly communicating and providing feedback and information from an array of global resources, all while sitting on my sofa having my morning coffee, which was prepared automatically by my electronic coffee maker, in a room which has a voice activated Alexa, Bluetooth speakers, and a “smart” television, all capable of being connected to my “smartphone,” through which I can control, in significant ways, all of the other devices.

It hardly requires more than a passing familiarity with our 21st century technology to be able to conclude that, in a big way, some aspect of artificial intelligence has made virtually all of this activity possible. With a few keystrokes on my laptop, or the tapping of a few icons on my smartphone, I can connect and engage each of these devices to perform an astonishing array of functions, including a particularly interesting version of conversation with a lovely female sounding, voice-activated device with an apparent capability to understand, to an impressive degree, words and inquiries initiated by me.

In the spirit of intellectual curiosity, I decided to attempt to press the Alexa to push the boundaries of the device’s “intelligence,” to see if I might be able to get it to “make a connection,” between ideas that I bring up in a logical sequence. My first question asked about the definition of artificial intelligence:

Alexa, what is artificial intelligence?

“Artificial intelligence is usually defined as the branch of computer science that deal with writing computer programs that can solve problems creatively.”

(I noticed right away that Alexa made a grammatical error in saying “deal” instead of “deals.”)

Alexa, what is deep learning?

“Deep learning is part of a broader family of machine learning methods based on learning data representations as opposed to task-specific algorithms.”

Alexa, what is an algorithm?

“Algorithm is usually defined as a precise rule or set of rules, specifying how to solve some problem.”

Alexa, give me an example of an algorithm.

“Constraint is a random algorithm.”

Alexa, what is a constraint algorithm?

“In computational chemistry, a constraint algorithm is a method for satisfying the Newtonian motion of a rigid body which consists of mass points.”

While this exchange was interesting in view of interacting with a device using only my voice, and considering that Alexa’s responses to my questions generally were appropriate, the moment I went beyond the simple formulation of asking, “what is,” Alexa quickly resorted to the default response of “I’m not sure,” and “I don’t know the answer to that.” The impressive range of information at Alexa’s disposal, and the ability to respond to specific questions are both useful if you are doing a search, or want to know how to spell a word, but if you want to converse or ask further questions about the material provided, you will be disappointed. I told Alexa that I wanted to have a conversation, and was surprised to hear the device suggest that I engage “a social bot.”

Once I engaged this option, I was momentarily encouraged by the more conversational tone of the words that issued from the speaker. For a moment, the words seemed almost spontaneous, until, instead of saying, “yes,” to a suggestion, I responded with “sure.” Alexa’s chatty response was, “Oh, this is embarrassing, I’m not sure how to respond to what you said…would you like to talk about something else?” It quickly became apparent that there were a limited number of responses that I could give, and that my responses had to conform to a particular pattern or the device would revert to the default suggestion that we talk about something else. The responses became a little longer and there would occasionally be a humorous interjection when the exchange reached its limit, but I tired fairly quickly of having to conform to a formula in order to continue the exchange.

As interesting as even these limited options are in the context of “talking” to a machine, it is painfully obvious that there is really “no one home;” no “ghost in the machine.” There is a clear distinction between my interest in a conversation, and the machines ability to participate in any meaningful way. It is still a practical and interesting way to interact with an information source, and the advantages these devices provide are often surprising.

In the kitchen, there is another device called the “Echo Show,” which utilizes the same algorithms and methods as Alexa, but has the added advantage of being able to provide video results when the opportunity presents itself. When installing the device initially, the default “wake up” word was also Alexa, which immediately caused both devices to respond simultaneously, so I had to change the “wake up” word to “Echo,” in order not to engage the Alexa device at the same time. The advantages of having the option to display a variety of video responses is a clear enhancement of the original concept, but the option to conduct face-to-face video messaging and calls with others who have an Echo device requires giving access to contacts and phone numbers, and currently that seems a bit beyond my comfort zone regarding digital privacy and sharing.

The stark differences between the artificial intelligence supporting the machine and the natural intelligence I was using to interact with it, points to one of the key elements in discussing the potentials inherent in the future of AI development. No matter how sophisticated the sensors and algorithms or models of deep learning become, perception and processing alone are insufficient to produce the ability for introspection or the “inner sense” we experience as living biological and sentient beings. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy expresses it this way:

“Perception is achieved through dedicated organs such as eyes and ears, whereas there is no (literal) organ of introspection. “The ‘organ’ of introspection is attention, the orientation of which puts a subject in an appropriate relation to a targeted state” (Goldman 2006: 244). Perception ordinarily involves sensory experiences, whereas “No one thinks that one is aware of beliefs and thoughts by having sensations or quasi-sense-experiences of them” (Shoemaker 1994: 255). – Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

All conscious humans with a nominally functional cognitive apparatus (brain, central nervous system, with basic life supporting and sensory systems intact) combined with sufficient life experience, and at least a minimal ability with language, eventually will acquire a degree of “inner sense experience,” which permits and accounts for our ability for introspection, which differs from simple perception in significant ways.

Artificial Intelligence and Human Life

Fifty-two prominent researchers on intelligence, agreed to a broad definition of the term, “Intelligence:”

“Intelligence is a very general capability that, among other things, involves the ability to reason, plan, solve problems, think abstractly, comprehend complex ideas, learn quickly and learn from experience. It is not merely book learning, a narrow academic skill, or test‑taking smarts. Rather, it reflects a broader and deeper capability for comprehending our surroundings—‘catching on’, ‘making sense’ of things, or ‘figuring out’ what to do. Intelligence, so defined, can be measured, and intelligence tests measure it well”

–Gottfredson, L. S. Mainstream science on intelligence: excerpt from an editorial with 52 signatories, history, and bibliography. Intelligence 24, 13–23 (1997).

Intelligence of the artificial variety, if it is ever to be considered on a par with the human variety, should then include each of these abilities, as well as the capabilities for comprehension, “catching on,” etc. A recent film about this very subject has captured some very important aspects of concern, supposing that there is some sort of breakthrough eventually that creates what might be described as a “conscious machine.”

“Ex Machina,” the 2015 Universal Studio film, directed by Alex Garland, starring Domhnall Gleeson, Alicia Vikander, and Oscar Isaac, tells the story of a reclusive billionaire genius who owns the largest search engine company in the world, who has built a research facility in a remote mountain setting for the purpose of building an artificially intelligent robot, with the expressed goal of passing the well-known “Turing Test,” for determining if the “machine” is self-aware. As the film opens, Caleb, an employee of the high-tech firm, has won a lottery drawing within the company to visit the CEO, Nathan, at his research station and, as a result, has the opportunity to test the A.I. to see if it is truly “self-aware.” If Nathan has succeeded, he claims that it would be “the most important event in the history of man.” Domhnall Gleeson’s character corrects him by describing it as “the most important event in the history of gods.”

We are immediately thrown into the astonishing world of the newly “born” A.I., Ava, and by virtue of the design of a special high-tech suit, Alicia Vikander’s character appears to be constructed of wires and metal bones, illuminated by a variety of internal lights, and covered strategically by patches of flesh-like “skin,” allowing for the display of facial movements, and to give “Ava,” a basic human appearance. The internal workings are visible enough to suggest how the robot functions, while still providing the basic contours of the human form. It is an accomplished display of special effects which are both astonishingly realistic and profoundly disturbing at the same time. The contrast is designed to be unsettling to the moviegoer—to draw us in and to shock us into believing that it could be accomplished.

If you haven’t seen the film, it is a powerfully compelling story, and I recommend it wholeheartedly as a morality tale, which begs the question of how we would have to treat such entities should they actually qualify as being self-aware, as well as a serious warning about what might happen if we don’t get it right. The character of the robot’s creator, Nathan, clearly isn’t sufficiently cautious regarding the implications of bringing a self-aware robot “online,” and he seems callous and narcissistic as an eccentric billionaire genius.

Story elements aside, many of which were designed to create drama and provide tension, the underlying implications of the circumstances surrounding such an endeavor gave me pause to consider why any future human being capable of such a feat would even want to dabble in such an undertaking in the first place. Regardless of the level of extraordinary intelligence required, bringing such an entity into existence would also require just the right balance of human decency, compassion, and empathy, coupled with profound and penetrating neuroscientific acumen. While the technological and scientific principles supporting such an invention would be of great interest to artificial intelligence advocates generally, and those who would stand to benefit financially and otherwise would have an understandable motive to see it through, the actual created entity itself would present humanity with the most challenging and perplexing dilemma it could ever face—how to know if it would turn out to be a powerfully beneficial scientific breakthrough, or the eventual instrument of our own obsolescence!

At this point in human evolution, the possibility of constructing anything even close to the self-aware robot we meet in the film seems, on the face of it, to be a very unlikely development for a number of reasons. Throughout the film, we are presented with brief glimpses of the architecture and underlying technologies which provide the foundation for how such an entity might be constructed and assembled to achieve the desired result of the project, and none of those elements exist currently in any form even resembling in the slightest degree that which would be necessary for accomplishing this enormously complex task. Using even the most sophisticated and powerful computers known to humanity, we can barely reach a level of AI that even just approximates the sophistication of the most basic nervous system of the most minimally sentient creature.

Several projects being undertaken to “mimic” the human brain, using our most promising approaches for “deep learning,” and the giant “supercomputers” like IBM’s Watson, are simply nowhere near being able to reproduce anything resembling even a fraction of the innate capabilities that our own three pound squishy mental organ can manage, with its trillions of connections inside our exquisitely shaped and evolutionarily designed skulls. This inheritance of the long evolutionary path of modern primates provided Homo sapiens with a distinctly and uniquely capable cognitive system, which exists (so far as we know) only within human beings, and consists of the most complex arrangement of neural networks of any known species. It is presumptuous indeed to suppose that any artificial system might one day exist, which could recreate precisely, that which now exists within us, possessing the same character and quality of a living, breathing, sentient modern human.

Even the tiniest quantum “neurons,” represented by the atomic scale of the components proposed by the advent of quantum computers, require supporting technologies that would seriously prohibit squeezing them into a space as small as the human skull. The character of Ava, portrayed unflinchingly in the film by Alicia Vikander, has so many affectations of modern humans, and is intriguing beyond any expectation of her creator or her Turing tester, that we easily get caught up in suspending our knowledge that no such creature currently exists. The interplay between Caleb and Ava reaches a fever pitch eventually, and we are compelled to hang on to the edge of our seats as the drama unfolds.

It is well worth the investment of the resources available to produce sophisticated and intelligent machines, and I’m not suggesting that we abandon artificial intelligence research and development. Many of the films which attempt to portray what might take place in a world where such inventions exist, often only offer a superficial portrayal of the opposing characters, glossing over the significant differences between artificial machines and sentient living humans. In the film, “Ex Machina,” the contrast is absolutely startling, as both human and machine present a potent display of the limits of both the technology and our human understanding of what makes us truly self-aware.

What it usually boils down to is whether or not the film makers believe consciousness is a product of brain physiology—whether it “emerges” out of the firing of neurons and the electrochemical processes defined by neuroscience, or instead exists as a phenomenon of indeterminate origin which is made available to us by virtue of possessing “the right stuff,” –a sufficiently complex cognitive organ.

Any attempt to reduce the complexity and holistic phenomenal experience of consciousness to simply putting together enough neurons in the right arrangement and coordinating systems and functions in just the right manner, seriously underestimates not only the phenomenon itself, but fails to take into account the awesome and sometimes mysterious character of our humanity. Human nature and nurture won’t ever be truly obsolete, as long as we continue to appreciate the supreme value of human life, and acknowledge with gratitude, our awareness of our subjective experience of existing as complex sentient beings. We are imperfect creatures who often don’t understand or appreciate fully how miraculous it is to be a participant in the experience of life on Earth, and we cannot expect any artificial “life” to be anything other than a reflection of the moral character and scientific competence of its creator.

Grandfathers And Grandchildren

Recently, I performed the stage role of an elderly grandfather for a gathering of my extended family over the Christmas holiday, and enjoyed having the opportunity to express through a theatrical scene, the importance of giving serious consideration to our contributions to the well-being of our family, and to acknowledge both the challenges and the rewards that being a grandfather can bring to our lives.

Being a grandparent these days, while retaining many of the basic characteristics we normally associate with this important role, has become expanded and extended beyond what it was years ago. Even just fifty or sixty years ago, the traditional roles of grandparents were fairly straightforward generally, requiring a supportive stance toward the parents, and filled with many pleasurable moments, not only watching the grandchildren grow and learn, but also spending time sharing advice and telling the grandchildren stories about the days when Mom and Dad were growing up. It was much more rare for children to have to live with their grandparents, although extreme circumstances did occur, like the loss of one’s parents, divorce, through some disabling illness or in the case of serious parental neglect or inability to care for a child.

In some ways, our modern day social environment is much more volatile and strenuous than in previous generations, and those conditions and exceptions are much more common these days. That certainly would explain how the role of grandparenting needed to change to meet this new reality. Each generation has its own unique challenges and opportunities which shape the social landscape through the years, and I wouldn’t necessarily want to recreate the conditions of previous generations in order to reduce our 21st century expectations and demands on family life.

What does seem most urgent to me, though, is the recognition, that being a grandfather or grandmother, no matter how one arrives in that role, and no matter what circumstances occur that assign us this very important role, presents us with an enormously important opportunity to not only assist in shaping the lives of the next generation of our family, but also points toward a fundamental connection that each of us has to all life, whether it is a very specific human life that a grandparent shares with their grandchild, or the most far flung life anywhere on Earth.

In a recent article by Jim Sollisch in the New York Times, he recalls how much more concern and stress accompanied the birth of his own children, and he describes his experience of becoming a father as “…a lot like becoming a German shepherd if German shepherds were capable of constantly calculating the risks of SIDS and peanut allergies.” Becoming a father is a lot like becoming something you couldn’t even have imagined being BEFORE having a child, but his exaggeration for emphasis does sort of capture the strangeness of it at first. He goes on to detail the difficult days of early fatherhood with his son’s several bouts with typical illnesses, and his stories about the differences with his second child definitely rang true for me, including one fairly serious injury report that most young parents could match at some point looking back.

He concludes by describing his experience of being a grandfather now, as always being “…the second line of defense, a bench player.” While this is frequently the case, it is much more common these days to be on the front lines of caring for and worrying about our next generation’s progeny. In my case, the role of grandfather took on a whole new level of worrying and concern when circumstances required us to care for several of our grandchildren on a daily basis for the early years of their lives. As a father, I had a fairly rocky beginning in the early years, not in my unabashed love and concern for my two small children, but in my inability to sustain a relationship with their mother.

The arrival of my children in my life was fairly challenging due to the circumstances into which they were born, but when I finally saw them as they entered the world, there was an extraordinary surge of love and positive emotion within me that could have overcome any obstacle, and I took to my role as father to my children without reservation. All other concerns melted away as I held them in my arms for the first time, and I was irrevocably altered in ways I never could have foreseen. Even as the circumstances worsened outside of their existence, there was a deepening of emotion and unconditional love that was unstoppable. Just when I thought that this would be my only experience of fatherhood, destiny and my connection to the heart of life, readied an impossible dream to unfold that would change me in ways that I never could have imagined.

****next time–an impossible dream come true****