Menu

Officially Intelligent

Humanity is on the precipice of major change. Some fear a world ruled by bots. I fear a world ruled by people.

Aug 1, 2018
Bob Grant
ANDRZEJ KRAUZE

I’ve been thinking a lot about artificial intelligence (AI) lately. And I figured it was apropos to muse on the topic here, as an introduction to our August issue, which will live only as 1s and 0s in the digital landscape, and not printed on paper as usual.

As a recovering neo-Luddite, I’ve come to accept the fact that increasingly savvy robots are already replacing humans in a variety of roles, from manning the assembly line in warehouses and driving trucks to working in the laboratory and (gasp!) reporting the news. I also firmly believe that humanity possesses qualities that are, if not irreplaceable, at least tough to replicate even with the most advanced technology. 

For example, I have little difficulty conceiving of some John Snow–bot triangulating the source of a cholera outbreak to a pump handle. Indeed, epidemiology is a field into which AI has already made fruitful incursions. But for a machine to achieve the mental gymnastics executed by Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace to arrive at a firmly supported model of evolution by natural selection seems a bit more of a stretch.

I have little doubt that the many talented minds behind AI research will one day crack these anthropomorphic nuts and create nonhuman entities that are capable of approximating human thought processes. But the main thrust of the field currently seems more about ramped-up processing speed to support machine learning, and the development of adaptive algorithms and neural networks that undergird it.

So will an AI system ever approach the oft-times nonsensical meanderings of human thought and creativity? Answering that question will require the scientific community to do something it has always struggled with: define “intelligence.” Human cognition (not to mention that of other animals) has long been a slippery concept for neuroscientists to wrap their research around. With the advent of tools like optogenetics, CRISPR, and brain organoids, scientists have come closer to being able to interrogate simple thought processes and pathologies that occur in the animal brain. Yet the “mind” has for centuries remained something of a black box, more readily explored by psychoanalysts, philosophers, and artists than by experimentalists.

But as technology and science progress, human intelligence may be suffering by outsourcing various thought processes to computers. When was the last time you engaged in a rigorous, adult conversation—say about history or world geography—in which the superior “intelligence” of Google was not invoked? Humans may be getting dumber as a direct result of the gadgets designed to make our lives easier. 

You don’t, however, have to take my curmudgeonly word for it. Just last month, Noriko Arai, an AI expert at Japan's National Institute of Informatics, offered a dire warning in the Kyodo News: “The advancement of machines? That’s understandable. But the decline of humans? That’s a problem that needs to be addressed immediately. The future is very, very scary.”

Arai went on to explain that her own research had revealed that she and her collaborators had built and trained an AI-based system that managed to score better than 80 percent of high school students on a standardized national university entrance test. The biggest gulf between human and machine: reading comprehension.

Arai’s advice to modern humans, struggling to maintain their cognitive distinction in an age of rapidly advancing AI technology? “Be creative. Robots can’t be.”

And that’s what we aim to do with this issue’s worth of stories and infographics. Also, be sure to stay tuned to The Scientist. We’re planning an expansive special issue on artificial intelligence next year, and I’ll be sure to share the insights we gain by diving into the forefront of the research and engineering that is changing our world and our minds. 

Bob Grant

Editor-in-Chief

November 2018

Intelligent Science

Wrapping our heads around human smarts

Marketplace

Sponsored Product Updates

Preparing Cell Or Tissue Lysates For ELISA Kits

Preparing Cell Or Tissue Lysates For ELISA Kits

RayBiotech manufactures over 2,000 high fully validated, GMP-compliant ELISA kits. In this blog post we explain how to prepare cell or tissue lysates for ELISA Kits.

Norgen Biotek Achieves Illumina Propel Certification as a Service Provider for Next Generation Sequencing

Norgen Biotek Achieves Illumina Propel Certification as a Service Provider for Next Generation Sequencing

Norgen Biotek Corp., an innovative privately held Canadian biotechnology company focusing primarily on nucleic acid and protein stabilization and purification, as well as providing high quality services to the scientific community, today announced that it has become Propel-Certified through Illumina as a Next Generation Sequencing (NGS) service provider.

Slice® Safety Cutters for Lab Work

Slice® Safety Cutters for Lab Work

Slice cutting tools—which feature our patent-pending safety blades—meet many lab-specific requirements. Our scalpels and craft knives are well suited for delicate work, and our utility knives are good for general use.

The Lab of the Future: Alinity Poised to Reinvent Clinical Diagnostic Testing and Help Improve Healthcare

The Lab of the Future: Alinity Poised to Reinvent Clinical Diagnostic Testing and Help Improve Healthcare

Every minute counts when waiting for accurate diagnostic test results to guide critical care decisions, making today's clinical lab more important than ever. In fact, nearly 70 percent of critical care decisions are driven by a diagnostic test.