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Welcome to the nexus of ethics, psychology, morality, technology, health care, and philosophy

Thursday, December 22, 2022

In the corner of an Australian lab, a brain in a dish is playing a video game - and it’s getting better

Liam Mannix
Sydney Morning Herald
Originally posted 13 NOV 22

Here is an excerpt:

Artificial intelligence controls an ever-increasing slice of our lives. Smart voice assistants hang on our every word. Our phones leverage machine learning to recognise our face. Our social media lives are controlled by algorithms that surface content to keep us hooked.

These advances are powered by a new generation of AIs built to resemble human brains. But none of these AIs are really intelligent, not in the human sense of the word. They can see the superficial pattern without understanding the underlying concept. Siri can read you the weather but she does not really understand that it’s raining. AIs are good at learning by rote, but struggle to extrapolate: even teenage humans need only a few sessions behind the wheel before the can drive, while Google’s self-driving car still isn’t ready after 32 billion kilometres of practice.

A true ‘general artificial intelligence’ remains out of reach - and, some scientists think, impossible.

Is this evidence human brains can do something special computers never will be able to? If so, the DishBrain opens a new path forward. “The only proof we have of a general intelligence system is done with biological neurons,” says Kagan. “Why would we try to mimic what we could harness?”

He imagines a future part-silicon-part-neuron supercomputer, able to combine the raw processing power of silicon with the built-in learning ability of the human brain.

Others are more sceptical. Human intelligence isn’t special, they argue. Thoughts are just electro-chemical reactions spreading across the brain. Ultimately, everything is physics - we just need to work out the maths.

“If I’m building a jet plane, I don’t need to mimic a bird. It’s really about getting to the mathematical foundations of what’s going on,” says Professor Simon Lucey, director of the Australian Institute for Machine Learning.

Why start the DishBrains on Pong? I ask. Because it’s a game with simple rules that make it ideal for training AI. And, grins Kagan, it was one of the first video game ever coded. A nod to the team’s geek passions - which run through the entire project.

“There’s a whole bunch of sci-fi history behind it. The Matrix is an inspiration,” says Chong. “Not that we’re trying to create a Matrix,” he adds quickly. “What are we but just a goooey soup of neurons in our heads, right?”

Maybe. But the Matrix wasn’t meant as inspiration: it’s a cautionary tale. The humans wired into it existed in a simulated reality while machines stole their bioelectricity. They were slaves.

Is it ethical to build a thinking computer and then restrict its reality to a task to be completed? Even if it is a fun task like Pong?

“The real life correlate of that is people have already created slaves that adore them: they are called dogs,” says Oxford University’s Julian Savulescu.

Thousands of years of selective breeding has turned a wild wolf into an animal that enjoys rounding up sheep, that loves its human master unconditionally.