​Amoebas Are Still More Intelligent Than Our Most Powerful Computers

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If you're one of those people who believe the singularity is imminent, you might want to pack a lunch. Our machines just aren't that smart, says Alva Noë, a philosopher at the University of California at Berkeley. What we call artificial intelligence is actually best described as pseudo-intelligence.

In an essay published at NPR, Noë likens supercomputers to clocks, in that they can keep time, but they really don't know what time is. Similarly, IBM's Watson didn't "play" Jeopardy! We played Jeopardy! using Watson.

In that sense, Noë is echoing the views of skeptics such as Oren Etzioni, head of an AI research effort funded by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. "Watson won Jeopardy!, but does it know it won?" he asked. "Would you let Watson be your doctor?"


Watson, in fact, has been having a difficult time finding employment in the private sector, despite IBM's claims that it has several real-world applications such as investment and health care. As Bloomberg Businessweek reports:

Klaus-Peter Adlassnig is a computer scientist at the Medical University of Vienna and the editor-in-chief of the journal Artificial Intelligence in Medicine. The problem with Watson, as he sees it, is that it's essentially a really good search engine that can answer questions posed in natural language. Over time, Watson does learn from its mistakes, but Adlassnig suspects that the sort of knowledge Watson acquires from medical texts and case studies is "very flat and very broad." In a clinical setting, the computer would make for a very thorough but cripplingly literal-minded doctor—not necessarily the most valuable addition to a medical staff. There may well come a day when computers can spit out diagnoses and treatment regimens, leaving doctors little to do but enter data and hone their bedside manner, but that day has not yet come.


This is why Noë prefers the term pseudo-intelligence over artificial intelligence — and why he believes the mechanical continues to lag behind the biological:

It's striking that even the simplest forms of life — the amoeba, for example — exhibit an intelligence, an autonomy, an originality, that far outstrips even the most powerful computers. A single cell has a life story; it turns the medium in which it finds itself into an environment and it organizes that environment into a place of value. It seeks nourishment. It makes itself — and in making itself it introduces meaning into the universe.

Now, admittedly, unicellular organisms are not very bright — but they are smarter than clocks and supercomputers. For they possess the rudimentary beginnings of that driven, active, compelling engagement that we call life and that we call mind. Machines don't have information. We process information with them. But the amoeba does have information — it gathers it, it manufactures it.

I'll start worrying about the singularity when IBM has made machines that exhibit the agency and awareness of an amoeba.