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The futurist: The great artifical intelligence debate


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(Editor's note: This is the first of two parts.)

I’ve been closely watching the debate on artificial intelligence (AI) with people like Rodney Brooks saying it’s only a tool, and others like Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking giving bone-chilling warnings of how it could lead to the destruction of all humanity.

As I was pondering these differing points of view, it occurred to me that we currently don’t have any real way of measuring the potency of AI. How will we ever know there is a real threat of danger if we have no way of measuring it?

For this reason, I’d like to propose the creation of a standard for measuring AI based on “1 Human Intelligence Unit.”

Similar in some respects to James Watt’s ingenious way of calculating horsepower as a way of gauging the mechanical muscle behind his ever improving steam engines, I’d like to make a crude attempt at quantifying, in numerical terms, the influence of 1 Human Intelligence Unit (HIU).

Since horsepower is a rather one-dimensional measure of force, and human intelligence is a complex, multidimensional combination of personal attributes that include thinking, reasoning, determination, motivation, emotional values, memories, fears, and frailty, the simple notion of quantifying human brainpower quickly mushroomed into one of those “infinity plus one” questions where the answer has become more of a philosophical debate rather than something to which we could assign a meaningful integer.

Over the past few weeks, I found myself immersed in this quandary, looking for a simple but eloquent approach vector for solving the 1 HIU riddle.

To put this into perspective, imagine a scene 20 years from now where you are walking into your local robot store to compare the latest models before you buy one for your home. The three models you’re most interested in have tags listing their HIUs as 4.6, 12.4, and 24.0 respectively.

Depending on whether you’ll use your robot to simply follow orders or debate the issues of the day, the HIU rating will become a hugely valuable tool in determining which one to choose.

For this reason, I’d like to take you along on my personal journey to solve for “infinity plus one” in the area of human intelligence, and the startling conclusions I’ve reached that are likely to disrupt all your thinking.

History of Horsepower

When James Watt worked on his second-generation steam engines, it occurred to him that he needed a simple method for conveying the power of his devices, and it needed to be something everyone could relate to.

After watching horses turn the giant 24-foot wheel at a local mill, Watt determined that a horse could turn the wheel 144 revolutions in an hour, or 2.4 times a minute. With some quick calculations, he concluded the average horse could pull with a force of 180 pounds, which translates into 33,000 ft-lb per minute, the number behind every unit of horsepower today.

Even though horses couldn’t maintain this level of effort over a very long period of time, the horsepower comparison caught on and became a hugely valuable tool in marketing his engines.

Quantifying Intelligence

Needless to say, the quantification of effort exerted by a horse is far simpler than assigning value to the complex nature of human intellect.

A simple approach starts with one of mankind’s greatest accomplishments, the Apollo Moon Landing, and dividing it by the number of people it took to accomplish it, and we could say that it took exactly X number of HIUs to complete the mission. But this approach is far too simplistic to have any real value.

What exactly would we be measuring, computational skills? How could a measure like this have any value in comparing say a robot doing laundry, a self-driving car, or Watson playing Jeopardy?

Last year I wrote a column introducing the concept of “synaptical currency” as a way of quantifying mental effort and creating a better way of valuing a person’s contribution to a project based on a comparison of synapse firings over a given period of time.

According to neuroscientist Astra Bryant, a rough number for neural signal transmissions in the average brain ranges from 86 billion to 17.2 trillion actions per second, with a person in a deep meditative state being on the low end and someone experiencing a full blown, category-five epiphany on the high end.

Even though having an HIU rating system based on the average number of decisions or calculations a person can make in an hour would have some merit, it represent little more than a horsepower rating for the brain, losing intangibles like passion, ingenuity, and imagination in the process.

Being Human

Humans are odd creatures. We have exceptions for every rule, we value intangible things based on our emotional connection to them, and our greatest strength is flawed logic.

Yet in the midst of our love dance with imperfection where we find ourselves grabbing on to clumsy-footed conundrums just to maintain some semblance of poise, we remain the dominant higher order species in the universe.

Certainly some will argue with that assessment, and we know little of what exists beyond our own planet, but here’s the key.

What we lack as individuals, we make up for as a whole.

One person’s deficiencies are counterbalanced by another person’s over-adequacies. Individually, we’re all failures – but together, we each represent the pixels on life’s great masterpiece.

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Thomas Frey

Thomas Frey is the executive director and senior futurist at the DaVinci Institute and currently Google’s top-rated futurist speaker.  At the Institute, he has developed original research studies, enabling him to speak on unusual topics, translating trends into unique opportunities. Tom continually pushes the envelope of understanding, creating fascinating images of the world to come.  His talks on futurist topics have captivated people ranging from high level of government officials to executives in Fortune 500 companies including NASA, IBM, AT&T, Hewlett-Packard, Unilever, GE, Blackmont Capital, Lucent Technologies, First Data, Boeing, Ford Motor Company, Qwest, Allied Signal, Hunter Douglas, Direct TV, Capital One, National Association of Federal Credit Unions, STAMATS, Bell Canada, American Chemical Society, Times of India, Leaders in Dubai, and many more. Before launching the DaVinci Institute, Tom spent 15 years at IBM as an engineer and designer where he received over 270 awards, more than any other IBM engineer.

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