The Guardian had a piece recently which was partly a profile of Ray Kurzweil, and partly about the way Google seems to have gone on a buying spree, snapping up experts on machine learning and robotics – with Kurzweil himself made Director of Engineering.
The problem with Ray Kurzweil is that he is two people. There is Ray Kurzweil the competent and genuinely gifted innovator, a man we hear little from: and then there’s Ray Kurzweil the motor-mouth, prophet of the Singularity, aspirant immortal, and gushing fountain of optimistic predictions. The Guardian piece praises his record of prediction, rather oddly quoting in support his prediction that by the year 2000 paraplegics would be walking with robotic leg prostheses – something that in 2014 has still not happened. That perhaps does provide a clue to the Kurzweil method: if you issue thousands of moderately plausible predictions, some will pay off. A doubtless-apocryphal story has it that at AI conferences people play the Game of Kurzweil. Players take turns to offer a Kurzweilian prediction (by 2020 there will be a restaurant where sensors sniff your breath and the ideal meal is got ready without you needing to order; by 2050 doctors will routinely use special machines to selectively disable traumatic memories in victims of post-traumatic stress disorder; by 2039 everyone will have an Interlocutor, a software agent that answers the phone for us, manages our investments, and arranges dates for us… we could do this all day, and Kurzweil probably does). The winner is the first person to sneak in a prediction of something that has in fact happened already.
But beneath the froth is a sharp and original mind which it would be all too easy to underestimate. Why did Google want him? The Guardian frames the shopping spree as being about bringing together the best experts and the colossal data resources to which Google has access. A plausible guess would be that Google wants to improve its core product dramatically. At the moment Google answers questions by trying to provide a page from the web where some human being has already given the answer; perhaps the new goal is technology that understands the question so well that it can put together its own answer, gathering and shaping selected resources in very much the way a human researcher working on a bespoke project might do.
But perhaps it goes a little further: perhaps they hope to produce something that will interact with humans in a human-like way. A piece of software like that might well be taken to have passed the Turing test, which in turn might be taken to show that it was, to all intents and purposes, a conscious entity. Of course, if it wasn’t conscious, that might be a disastrous outcome; the nightmare scenario feared by some in which our mistake causes us to nonsensically award the software human rights, and/or to feel happier about denying them to human beings.
It’s not very likely that the hypothetical software (and we must remember that this is the merest speculation) would have even the most minimal forms of consciousness. We might take the analogy of Google Translate; a hugely successful piece of kit, but one that produces its translations with no actual understanding of the texts or even the languages involved. Although highly sophisticated, it is in essence a ‘brute force’ solution; what makes it work is the massive power behind it and the massive corpus of texts it has access to. It seems quite possible that with enough resources we might now be able to produce a credible brute force winner of the Turing Test: no attempt to fathom the meanings or to introduce counterparts of human thought, just a massive repertoire of canned responses, so vast that it gives the impression of fully human-style interaction. Could it be that Google is assembling a team to carry out such a project?
Well, it could be. However, it could also be that cracking true thought is actually on the menu. Vaughan Bell suggests that the folks recruited by Google are honest machine learning types with no ambitions in the direction of strong AI. Yet, he points out, there are also names associated with the trendy topic of deep learning. The neural networks (but y’know, deeper) which deep learning uses just might be candidates for modelling human neuron-style cognition. Unfortunately it seems quite possible that if consciousness were created by deep learning methods, nobody would be completely sure how it worked or whether it was real consciousness or not. This is a lamentable outcome: it’s bad enough to have robots that naive users think are people; having robots and genuinely not knowing whether they’re people or not would be deeply problematic.
Probably nothing like that will happen: maybe nothing will happen. The Guardian piece suggests Kurzweil is a bit of an outsider: I don’t know about that. Making extravagantly optimistic predictions while only actually delivering much more modest incremental gains? He sounds like the personification of the AI business over the years.