#WSF18: They’ve Got the Power

If you’re a science fiction lover who can’t get enough of Mr. Robot and Westworld and worry that robots might one day make us their slaves, the good news is that it’s not likely to happen anytime soon, but technology that falls into the wrong hands needs to be considered. That was the consensus of a discussion on artificial intelligence (AI) last Friday at the World Science Festival at New York University (NYU).

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Tim Urban and cognitive scientist Susan Schneider. Photo: World Science Festival/Greg Kessler

The spirited session was aptly named, “Teach Your Robots Well: Will Self-Taught Robots Be the End of Us?” Moderator Tim Urban, a writer on futuristic issues and co-founder of the Wait but Why website, began with: “This is the biggest topic you can take on; relevant to every person in the room.”

 

The panel of academics included Susan Schneider, director of the AI, Mind and Society (AIMS) Group at the University of Connecticut; Yann LeCun, an AI scientist and a professor at NYU, Peter Tse, a professor at Dartmouth University and author of The Neural Basis of Free Will; and Matt Tegmark, a professor at MIT and president of the Future Life Institute.

The panelists suggested—each in their own way—that AI isn’t as dangerous or potentially harmful as advertised. Tse made the point that Siri, Alexa, and Google are not yet on the same level as human intelligence. He drew a distinction between “artificial narrow intelligence” and “artificial general intelligence,” explaining that narrow AI would be like a robot learning how to fly a plane or drive a car, while general AI would include knowledge on how to do those tasks—but also mow the lawn, babysit children, cook dinner, and still learn new other skills.

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Bringing Consciousness to the Stage

An ongoing challenge in brain research is trying to understand how neuro-activity creates consciousness or the awareness of one’s self.  For example, we don’t understand how the brain creates colors and or why individuals process smell differently. Your favorite color is blue; mine is green. You hate even a sniff of gasoline, but I enjoy it. These are the hard problems of neuroscience and philosophy that we haven’t made a great deal of progress on.

Enter Baba Brinkman, a performance artist who has taken on explaining what makes our brains tick using words and images. His one-man, somewhat interactive show, “Rap Guide to Consciousness,” at the SoHo Playhouse through the middle of May, fuses hip-hop, humor, and neuroscience together in a 90-minute multi-media presentation that attempts to explain complex topics such as free will, artificial intelligence, the effects of psychedelic drugs, Bayesian probability, the presence or absence of thoughts in infants and animals, and much more.

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Heather Berlin, a neuroscientist at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, gains insight into her husband’s brain. He created Rap Guide to Consciousness, now playing at the SoHo Playhouse in Manhattan.

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Free Public Event: The Meditating Brain

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Image: Shutterstock

From contemplation to prayer, forms of meditation exist in every society. Now, using up-to-date technologies, these ancient practices are being increasingly studied by neurologists. Although learning to meditate—to turn off all distractions—is no easy task, the advertised benefits claim it to be worthwhile. Such alleged benefits include the “calming” of neurotransmitters, beating addiction, and even building a bigger brain.

Published studies argue that meditation can produce structural alterations in the brain and may even slow the progress of certain age-related atrophy. Similarly, some yoga advocates claim that the practice, which is explored as a treatment for major depressive disorders, expands mental faculties. Further, prayer, according to the Huffington Post, can help dissuade impulsive actions.

Neuroimaging technologies are revealing changes in blood flow to areas of the brain, indicating more activity. This program will explore the neurological bases of these claims, if any, by explaining how the mind and body talk with one another during the acts of meditation, yoga, and prayer.

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World Science Festival: Computational Creativity

Interest in artificial intelligence (AI) seems like it’s at an all-time high, with people both wary and intrigued about how machine learning systems will change, and hopefully improve, our lives. Past discussions we’ve covered have delved into the ethical sphere: Can autonomous robots that (currently) lack consciousness and emotions serve us well as future healthcare aides and soldiers? Can robots be moral? But last week’s World Science Festival in New York City looked at a different side of AI, with a panel discussion on “Computational Creativity: The Art of Ingenuity.”

Focused on the creation of art, music, and culinary arts, the panel was tasked with answering such questions as: Can a robot truly imagine an original masterpiece or just replicate known styles? Is computational creativity a collaborator or a competitor?

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Artificial Intelligence, Avatars, and the Future

Most people first heard the word “avatar” from James Cameron’s Avatar, one of the top grossing films of all time. Some consider avatars an extension of the self that can save the world in the context of virtual reality or a video game. In Hinduism, avatars are considered incarnations of deities or immortals. The Hindu god Vishnu, for example, has many avatars, including the Buddha.

Helping to sort out the avatar conundrum and the fascinating field of artificial intelligence was a Brainwave series program at the Rubin Museum of Art in NYC last Wednesday night. The program—“A.I. and Avatar: The New Explorers,”— began with a head-spinning question: “Can machines and other avatars expand the human experience—and perhaps even take our minds to the stars?”

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