As Our AI Systems Get Better, So Must We
As the power and capability of our AI systems increase by the day, the essential question we now face is what constitutes peak human. If we stay where we are while the AI systems we are unleashing continually get better, they will meet and then exceed our capabilities in an ever-growing number of domains. But while some technology visionaries like Elon Musk call for us to slow down the development of AI systems to buy time, this approach alone will simply not work in our hyper-competitive world, particularly when the potential benefits of AI are so great and our frameworks for global governance are so weak. In order to build the future we want, we must also become ever better humans.
The list of activities we once saw as uniquely human where AIs have now surpassed us is long and growing. First, AI systems could beat our best chess players, then our best Go players, then our best champions of multi-player poker. They can see patterns far better than we can, generate medical and other hypotheses most human specialists miss, predict and map out new cellular structures, and even generate beautiful, and, yes, creative, art.
A recent paper by Microsoft researchers analyzing the significant leap in capabilities in OpenAI’s latest AI bot, ChatGPT-4, asserted that the algorithm can “solve novel and difficult tasks that span mathematics, coding, vision, medicine, law, psychology and more, without needing any special prompting.” Calling this functionality “strikingly close to human-level performance,” the authors conclude it “could reasonably be viewed as an early (yet still incomplete) version of an artificial general intelligence (AGI) system.”
The concept of AGI has been around for decades. In its common use, the term suggests a time when individual machines can do many different things at a human level, not just one thing like playing Go or analyzing radiological images. Debating when AGI might arrive, a favorite pastime of computer scientists for years, now has become outdated.
We already have AI algorithms and chatbots that can do lots of different things. Based on the generalist definition, in other words, AGI is essentially already here.
Unfettered by the evolved capacity and storage constraints of our brains, AI algorithms can access nearly all of the digitized cultural inheritance of humanity since the dawn of recorded history and have increasing access to growing pools of digitized biological data from across the spectrum of life.
Once we recognize that both AI systems and humans have unique superpowers, the essential question becomes what each of us can do better than the other and what humans and AIs can best do in active collaboration. The future of our species will depend upon our ability to safely, dynamically, and continually figure that out.
With these ever-larger datasets, rapidly increasing computing and memory power, and new and better algorithms, our AI systems will keep getting better faster than most of us can today imagine. These capabilities have the potential to help us radically improve our healthcare, agriculture, and manufacturing, make our economies more productive and our development more sustainable, and do many important things better.
Soon, they will learn how to write their own code. Like human children, in other words, AI systems will grow up. But even that doesn’t mean our human goose is cooked.
Just like dolphins and dogs, these alternate forms of intelligence will be uniquely theirs, not a lesser or greater version of ours. There are lots of things AI systems can't do and will never be able to do because our AI algorithms, for better and for worse, will never be human. Our embodied human intelligence is its own thing.
Our human intelligence is uniquely ours based on the capacities we have developed in our 3.8-billion-year journey from single cell organisms to us. Our brains and bodies represent continuous adaptations on earlier models, which is why our skeletal systems look like those of lizards and our brains like most other mammals with some extra cerebral cortex mixed in. Human intelligence isn’t just some type of disembodied function but the inextricable manifestation of our evolved physical reality. It includes our sensory analytical skills and all of our animal instincts, intuitions, drives, and perceptions. Disembodied machine intelligence is something different than what we have evolved and possess.
Because of this, some linguists including Noam Chomsky have recently argued that AI systems will never be intelligent as long as they are just manipulating symbols and mathematical tokens without any inherent understanding. Nothing could be further from the truth. Anyone interacting with even first-generation AI chatbots quickly realizes that while these systems are far from perfect or omniscient and can sometimes be stupendously oblivious, they are surprisingly smart and versatile and will get more so… forever. We have little idea even how our own minds work, so judging AI systems based on their output is relatively close to how we evaluate ourselves.
Anyone not awed by the potential of these AI systems is missing the point. AI’s newfound capacities demand that we work urgently to establish norms, standards, and regulations at all levels from local to global to manage the very real risks. Pausing our development of AI systems now doesn’t make sense, however, even if it were possible, because we have no sufficient ways of uniformly enacting such a pause, no plan for how we would use the time, and no common framework for addressing global collective challenges like this.
But if all we feel is a passive awe for these new capabilities, we will also be missing the point.
Human evolution, biology, and cultural history are not just some kind of accidental legacy, disability, or parlor trick, but our inherent superpower. Our ancestors outcompeted rivals for billions of years to make us so well suited to the world we inhabit and helped build. Our social organization at scale has made it possible for us to forge civilizations of immense complexity, engineer biology and novel intelligence, and extend our reach to the stars. Our messy, embodied, intuitive, social human intelligence is roughly mimicable by AI systems but, by definition, never fully replicable by them.
Once we recognize that both AI systems and humans have unique superpowers, the essential question becomes what each of us can do better than the other and what humans and AIs can best do in active collaboration. We still don't know. The future of our species will depend upon our ability to safely, dynamically, and continually figure that out.
As we do, we'll learn that many of our ideas and actions are made up of parts, some of which will prove essentially human and some of which can be better achieved by AI systems. Those in every walk of work and life who most successfully identify the optimal contributions of humans, AIs, and the two together, and who build systems and workflows empowering humans to do human things, machines to do machine things, and humans and machines to work together in ways maximizing the respective strengths of each, will be the champions of the 21st century across all fields.
The dawn of the age of machine intelligence is upon us. It’s a quantum leap equivalent to the domestication of plants and animals, industrialization, electrification, and computing. Each of these revolutions forced us to rethink what it means to be human, how we live, and how we organize ourselves. The AI revolution will happen more suddenly than these earlier transformations but will follow the same general trajectory. Now is the time to aggressively prepare for what is fast heading our way, including by active public engagement, governance, and regulation.
AI systems will not replace us, but, like these earlier technology-driven revolutions, they will force us to become different humans as we co-evolve with our technology. We will never reach peak human in our ongoing evolutionary journey, but we’ve got to manage this transition wisely to build the type of future we’d like to inhabit.
Alongside our ascending AIs, we humans still have a lot of climbing to do.
Today’s podcast guest is Rosalind Picard, a researcher, inventor named on over 100 patents, entrepreneur, author, professor and engineer. When it comes to the science related to endowing computer software with emotional intelligence, she wrote the book. It’s published by MIT Press and called Affective Computing.
Dr. Picard is founder and director of the MIT Media Lab’s Affective Computing Research Group. Her research and engineering contributions have been recognized internationally. For example, she received the 2022 International Lombardy Prize for Computer Science Research, considered by many to be the Nobel prize in computer science.
Through her research and companies, Dr. Picard has developed wearable sensors, algorithms and systems for sensing, recognizing and responding to information about human emotion. Her products are focused on using fitness trackers to advance clinical quality treatments for a range of conditions.
Meanwhile, in just the past few years, numerous fitness tracking companies have released products with their own stress sensors and systems. You may have heard about Fitbit’s Stress Management Score, or Whoop’s Stress Monitor – these features and apps measure things like your heart rhythm and a certain type of invisible sweat to identify stress. They’re designed to raise awareness about forms of stress such as anxieties and anger, and suggest strategies like meditation to relax in real time when stress occurs.
But how well do these off-the-shelf gadgets work? There’s no one more knowledgeable and experienced than Rosalind Picard to explain the science behind these stress features, what they do exactly, how they might be able to help us, and their current shortcomings.
Dr. Picard is a member of the National Academy of Engineering and a Fellow of the National Academy of Inventors, and a popular speaker who’s given over a hundred invited keynote talks and a TED talk with over 2 million views. She holds a Bachelors in Electrical Engineering from Georgia Tech, and Masters and Doctorate degrees in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science from MIT. She lives in Newton, Massachusetts with her husband, where they’ve raised three sons.
In our conversation, we discuss stress scores on fitness trackers to improve well-being. She describes the difference between commercial products that might help people become more mindful of their health and products that are FDA approved and really capable of advancing the science. We also talk about several fascinating findings and concepts discovered in Dr. Picard’s lab including the multiple arousal theory, a phenomenon you’ll want to hear about. And we explore the complexity of stress, one reason it’s so tough to measure. For example, many forms of stress are actually good for us. Can fitness trackers tell the difference between stress that’s healthy and unhealthy?
- Dr. Picard’s book, Affective Computing
- Dr. Picard’s bio
- Dr. Picard on Twitter
- Dr. Picard’s company, Empatica - https://www.empatica.com/ - The FDA-cleared Empatica Health Monitoring Platform provides accurate, continuous health insights for researchers and clinicians, collected in the real world
- Empatica Twitter
- Dr. Picard and her team have published hundreds of peer-reviewed articles across AI, Machine Learning, Affective Computing, Digital Health, and Human-computer interaction.
- Dr. Picard’s TED talk
If you look back on the last century of scientific achievements, you might notice that most of the scientists we celebrate are overwhelmingly white, while scientists of color take a backseat. Since the Nobel Prize was introduced in 1901, for example, no black scientists have landed this prestigious award.
The work of black women scientists has gone unrecognized in particular. Their work uncredited and often stolen, black women have nevertheless contributed to some of the most important advancements of the last 100 years, from the polio vaccine to GPS.
Here are five black women who have changed science forever.
Dr. May Edward Chinn
Dr. May Edward Chinn practicing medicine in Harlem
George B. Davis, PhD.
Chinn was born to poor parents in New York City just before the start of the 20th century. Although she showed great promise as a pianist, playing with the legendary musician Paul Robeson throughout the 1920s, she decided to study medicine instead. Chinn, like other black doctors of the time, were barred from studying or practicing in New York hospitals. So Chinn formed a private practice and made house calls, sometimes operating in patients’ living rooms, using an ironing board as a makeshift operating table.
Chinn worked among the city’s poor, and in doing this, started to notice her patients had late-stage cancers that often had gone undetected or untreated for years. To learn more about cancer and its prevention, Chinn begged information off white doctors who were willing to share with her, and even accompanied her patients to other clinic appointments in the city, claiming to be the family physician. Chinn took this information and integrated it into her own practice, creating guidelines for early cancer detection that were revolutionary at the time—for instance, checking patient health histories, checking family histories, performing routine pap smears, and screening patients for cancer even before they showed symptoms. For years, Chinn was the only black female doctor working in Harlem, and she continued to work closely with the poor and advocate for early cancer screenings until she retired at age 81.
Pictorial Press Ltd/Alamy
Alice Ball was a chemist best known for her groundbreaking work on the development of the “Ball Method,” the first successful treatment for those suffering from leprosy during the early 20th century.
In 1916, while she was an undergraduate student at the University of Hawaii, Ball studied the effects of Chaulmoogra oil in treating leprosy. This oil was a well-established therapy in Asian countries, but it had such a foul taste and led to such unpleasant side effects that many patients refused to take it.
So Ball developed a method to isolate and extract the active compounds from Chaulmoogra oil to create an injectable medicine. This marked a significant breakthrough in leprosy treatment and became the standard of care for several decades afterward.
Unfortunately, Ball died before she could publish her results, and credit for this discovery was given to another scientist. One of her colleagues, however, was able to properly credit her in a publication in 1922.
onathan Newton/The Washington Post/Getty
The person who arguably contributed the most to scientific research in the last century, surprisingly, wasn’t even a scientist. Henrietta Lacks was a tobacco farmer and mother of five children who lived in Maryland during the 1940s. In 1951, Lacks visited Johns Hopkins Hospital where doctors found a cancerous tumor on her cervix. Before treating the tumor, the doctor who examined Lacks clipped two small samples of tissue from Lacks’ cervix without her knowledge or consent—something unthinkable today thanks to informed consent practices, but commonplace back then.
As Lacks underwent treatment for her cancer, her tissue samples made their way to the desk of George Otto Gey, a cancer researcher at Johns Hopkins. He noticed that unlike the other cell cultures that came into his lab, Lacks’ cells grew and multiplied instead of dying out. Lacks’ cells were “immortal,” meaning that because of a genetic defect, they were able to reproduce indefinitely as long as certain conditions were kept stable inside the lab.
Gey started shipping Lacks’ cells to other researchers across the globe, and scientists were thrilled to have an unlimited amount of sturdy human cells with which to experiment. Long after Lacks died of cervical cancer in 1951, her cells continued to multiply and scientists continued to use them to develop cancer treatments, to learn more about HIV/AIDS, to pioneer fertility treatments like in vitro fertilization, and to develop the polio vaccine. To this day, Lacks’ cells have saved an estimated 10 million lives, and her family is beginning to get the compensation and recognition that Henrietta deserved.
Dr. Gladys West
Gladys West was a mathematician who helped invent something nearly everyone uses today. West started her career in the 1950s at the Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division in Virginia, and took data from satellites to create a mathematical model of the Earth’s shape and gravitational field. This important work would lay the groundwork for the technology that would later become the Global Positioning System, or GPS. West’s work was not widely recognized until she was honored by the US Air Force in 2018.
Dr. Kizzmekia "Kizzy" Corbett
At just 35 years old, immunologist Kizzmekia “Kizzy” Corbett has already made history. A viral immunologist by training, Corbett studied coronaviruses at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and researched possible vaccines for coronaviruses such as SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) and MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome).At the start of the COVID pandemic, Corbett and her team at the NIH partnered with pharmaceutical giant Moderna to develop an mRNA-based vaccine against the virus. Corbett’s previous work with mRNA and coronaviruses was vital in developing the vaccine, which became one of the first to be authorized for emergency use in the United States. The vaccine, along with others, is responsible for saving an estimated 14 million lives.
Sarah Watts is a health and science writer based in Chicago.