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Can machines think?

Understanding the intelligence of humans and machines

  • 3 min to read
Siri

Siri is one of the most publically recognized examples of AI.

Artificial intelligence (AI) is when machines are designed to demonstrate characteristics of natural intelligence. But what does that actually mean? Arnold Schwarzenegger has something to do with it, right? (That was a “Terminator” reference.)

That is a common reaction to AI. I know this because I am an instructor for AI at Computational Thinkers, a computer science center in Honolulu. From children to adults, I encounter people who do not know what this technology is beyond Siri.

Some do not realize that AI is in nearly every aspect of our lives. It has been for a while. A wall clock is a form of AI, and so is a calculator.

AI puts the “smart” in smart phones. It chooses what to recommend to you on Netflix and Youtube and it can assist in your medical diagnosis. What makes AI a common subject of curiosity today are its advancements and our fears of it – a fear often drawn from misunderstanding (and Arnold Schwarzenegger and movies about robots taking over). 

The University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa Information and Computer Sciences Department will offer two courses on AI this fall, according to the class availability list. However, one class will only cover AI in gaming while the other will focus on “Advanced Computer Vision,” which is a related discipline to AI. These are courses with extensive prerequisite requirements from the department.

With AI becoming a greater part of our lives, it is necessary for everyone to have access to introductory-level courses and education on what exactly AI is. AI courses should not be restricted to the Information and Computer Sciences Department, either.

Much of the AI field was founded simply upon thinking about how our own brains work.

How do you know what you know? 

Uses for AI and Machine Learning

Thinking about our own thinking is not something we do on a regular basis. 

Our brain interprets information every day, such as the sound of our coworkers’ voices and the words on this page. But how many of us know exactly how our brain does it, and should we even care?

The answer is a bold-faced “yes.” We need to care about how our brains work. Learning about the brain and our thinking is necessary as AI continues to develop. If we do not understand our own intelligence, how are we going to effectively use an artificial one? 

Michele Cantwell, a PhD candidate in developmental psychology at UH Mānoa, has taught psychology classes at the University since 2014. 

Cantwell says AI will likely be used to solve more diverse problems, so it is vital to understand the brain and psychology when discussing AI.

“AI isn’t going anywhere, and the more pervasive it is in our society, the more types of people will be working with AI,” Cantwell said. 

AI is, broadly, an algorithm. An algorithm is a set of rules to complete an operation. Most people recognize Siri as an AI, but what makes her one is not just her ability to talk back to you, but her ability to break down the sounds of your voice, understand the language and words you are saying and then use what you said to execute an internet or internal search. 

To put that into perspective, try asking someone who is exclusively fluent in Japanese to do something. Imagine they have never heard English before. If you ask in English, they will not understand you. Their brain cannot distinguish or process the sounds of your voice into a comprehensible language. The reason is not because they are not intelligent, they just lack the operational knowledge of the English language. Their brains cannot successfully achieve linguistic understanding. 

An AI programmed with hundreds of languages and an algorithm to break down the sounds of  natural language can do this. Try the “detect language” feature on Google Translate. It is not always accurate, but the fact that AI is beginning to achieve natural language understanding is a large step in the field. 

Applying AI algorithms for visual search can be used to locate missing children on hours of security footage faster than a human manually scrubbing each second. In video games, AI can create immersive entertainment that challenges our creativity and can improve our problem-solving abilities. 

The human role 

IG Poll AI

Cantwell emphasized that AI has highly complex roots in human psychology and we will miss the mark every time in solving complex problems, even with the most advanced technology. 

Nearly everything AI is capable of is rooted in things humans can do: comparing images, establishing relationships in information, understanding language and checking out at grocery stores. AI just does them faster. Because of that, it will continue to replace certain jobs.

Like all things, machines make mistakes too. The human worker is still an essential and valuable asset. If we lack an understanding on how AI works and how we can better apply the abilities of our brain with advancing technology, we will only expand the gap of fear and confusion in regards to AI. 

Stay with Ka Leo for continuing coverage on AI as I visit Silicon Valley with the Hawai‘i Student Entrepreneur Fellowship in July.