Machine intelligence: the earthmoving equipment of the information age, and the future of meaningful lives

Everybody today is overwhelmed by information

What we need more than anything else today is some heavy-lifting equipment for the mountains of heavy information debris we find piling up around us every day.

Most people in the developed world are overwhelmed right now by the information firehose, and few people are living lives in which the the balance of their time is a good reflection of their true deepest priorities.

Machine intelligence is the earthmoving equipment of the information age

The primary reason we need to build machine intelligence in the information age is that it will help us magnify our information-processing capabilities by orders of magnitude, the way that physical machines like cars/planes/bulldozers/cranes have long magnified our physical strength by orders of magnitude.

Fundamentally, I see continuing symbiotic augmentation of human intelligence -- with human biological intelligence in the driver's seat -- as a far more plausible future than that "Singularity Extremists" (in spite of being a graduate of Singularity University myself).

Technology so far has always served humanity as a toolset -- as an extension of our own intelligence and physical capabilities. Technology hasn't yet started serving itself, because it hasn't yet become sentient. Personally though, I disagree with many futurists that the "coming technological singularity" is either a distinct point in time, the same way that an exponential curve doesn't actually have an uptick or cusp or "knee of the curve", it has the same exact overall shape regardless of what vertical scale you stretch it to. I also disagree that eventually machines will become more intelligent than humans (after which we would render ourselves redundant, because artificial intelligence would be able to innovate faster than we can).  My view is that technology will always serve as a toolset for human intelligence, regardless of how "smart" it begins to act or seem, and regardless of how powerful it becomes, just as a car or plane is a large and powerful machine that is ultimately a prosthetic extension of the body and therefore the human brain controlling it.

We will always "keep up" with any intelligence we create, because the sum of (our brain + a machine brain) will always be more advanced than just the machine brain alone.

The real reason we need AI: we need a networked I/O interface for our brain

The most important role that so-called "AGIs" (Artificial General Intelligences) will serve in the future are:
  1. To deliver only the highest-quality, most-important, most distilled/focused information possible through the bandwidth-limited channels of our physical senses, and in particular through our visual channel, which has the highest bandwidth of all our senses [input], and
  2. To empower us to transform enormous quantities of external information in meaningful ways through a few simple and easy-to-learn actions [output].
This will give us the power tools to actively reshape the piles of information debris in our lives so that we can each build something beautiful, and so that we can live lives that are true to our deepest values and priorities.

We must build intelligent machines for the future of humanity

We must build these intelligent information prostheses, because it is far too easy to get distracted and overwhelmed today. If we want to continue living meaningful lives while still swimming in information, then without such tools we will reach the end of our lives and wonder why we didn't spend more time on the things that mattered most.


  1. Any technology can be used for good and for bad. What I fear most about AI is that it is so powerful that in the wrong hands, it could be the worst nightmare ever inflicted on humanity.

  2. We experience time at a fixed range of timescales, so I think that the "knee of the curve" argument and the associated perceived discontinuity are correct.

    Also, assuming smarter than human AI is possible, which I am practically certain it is, can we not expect it to gain sentience and volition?

    They would cease to be exclusively tools for humans.

  3. "Experiencing an upswing that we finally notice in our own scale of reference" is not the way Ray defines the Singularity -- it is the point at which we create smarter-than-human intelligence and so can no longer keep up without augmenting our own brains. My point is that the augmented brain *is* the smarter brain than our non-augmented brain -- and that's what we already have. I'm thousands of times "smarter" with access to information through Google than without. I'll be millions of times smarter when I have a machine learning algorithm powering the delivery of that information and empowering me in how I interact with it.

    "Smarter" may or may not mean sentient. Machine learning is already *much* "smarter" than humans in being able to minimize error in learning a functional mapping between a domain and a range in many problem areas. But machine learning algorithms are definitely not sentient.

    And this is a big part of the problem. What is it to be "smart"? What is it really to be "intelligent"? What is it to be "sentient"? What is it to be "cognisant"? What is it really to be "conscious"? I know of very few satisfying definitions for any of those terms that actually explain their true meaning and cause, even though we know intuitively what they all mean. Until we can completely and correctly define these terms, we don't have a hope of making plausible statements either way about whether or not we can build them, or how, or by what year.

  4. Luke,
    Have you encountered Thomas Metzinger's work on consciousness, there is an awful lot to be said on this and associated thoughts, but in effect, I am of the opinion that your comment about computers definitely not being sentient is flawed not because computers can or can not reach some elusive 'human' intelligence; but because we put much too emphasis on our own special place and ability
    Martin O'Dea