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Fragmentation Of Intelligence, How AI Blurs The Big Picture

A few decades ago, researchers dreamed of creating a machine capable of thinking as well as, or better than, humans. As the world becomes increasingly specialized, artificial intelligence can undermine the art of perspective.

Roger-Pol Droit

PARIS — See things from above, from the top of the hill. That old advice derives from the Stoics and has been cited in many ways throughout Western history. The meaning remains the same: to step back and see "the bigger picture," as they say. The ancients saw it as a spiritual exercise.

Since then, throughout periods of modernization, this concept has been used to construct global theories, make parallels and provide holistic views. This trend is now shifting as we are become increasingly specialized. In other words, intelligence has become fragmented.

This is the case with artificial intelligence. In the 1960s, the holy grail was a machine capable of thinking like a human. Around Marvin Minsky — an MIT researcher and author of The Society of Mind — teams were working hard, with big budgets, to develop this ultimate automaton that would deduce, compare, judge and decide like us. Better than us. Yet this researcher — who died Jan. 24, 2016 — was disillusioned when I met him in 2011 at Cambridge. He was aware of the downfall of this adventure, which had been the flagship project of the 20th century, along with space exploration.

Today there are countless small intelligent machines, but they merely execute defined tasks. Some simply vacuum the carpet or count our heartbeats, while other, more ambitious ones are able to manage urban traffic and financial transactions, or to compete with professional chess players. They are all excellent but have restricted capacity. The dream of "real" artificial intelligence — challenging that of humans, or even surpassing it — has given way to another reality: useful but idiotic robots.

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Smile? — Photo — Steven Lilley

Meanwhile, human intelligence seems to have followed down the same slope. Larger advances have occurred over the last 30 years than over the last 30 centuries, but we know less and less about the structure and interconnectedness of the whole. In the Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences, which Georg Hegel wrote two centuries ago, philosophers claimed to embrace the thoughts surrounding a holistic reality in an attempt to restore the internal logic of world history. Nowadays no philosopher shows such ambition. For a long time, problems, perspectives and skills have been disjointed.

Is it irreparable? Maybe not. Counter movements are on the rise, among machines as well as humans. The widespread fragmentation is now countered with all-encompassing connection. Networks today are linking sources of artificial intelligence, but also linking humans and their disciplines, experiences and cultures.

Some envision the unified abilities of artificial intelligence ultimately becoming dominant. This fantasy belongs to science fiction, not the real world. In the real world, which also includes the virtual, the digital revolution facilitates the emergence of a global human thought.

These are crucial questions: What is our common aspiration in de-fragmenting intelligence? What are the conceptual means at our disposal to achieve this? To put an end to our expertise is not enough. We can't gloss over things and make them look deceptively good from a distance. Contemplation from above cannot be improvised. We, instead, must find the conceptual tools that allow us to put the fragments of our world back together.

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Parenthood And The Pressure Of Always Having To Be Doing Better

As a father myself, I'm now better able to understand the pressures my own dad faced. It's helped me face my own internal demands to constantly be more productive and do better.

Photo of a father with a son on his shoulders

Father and son in the streets of Madrid, Spain

Ignacio Pereyra*


When I was a child — I must have been around eight or so — whenever we headed with my mom and grandma to my aunt's country house in Don Torcuato, outside of Buenos Aires, there was the joy of summer plans. Spending the day outdoors, playing soccer in the field, being in the swimming pool and eating delicious food.

But when I focus on the moment, something like a painful thorn appears in the background: from the back window of the car I see my dad standing on the sidewalk waving us goodbye. Sometimes he would stay at home. “I have to work” was the line he used.

Maybe one of my older siblings would also stay behind with him, but I'm sure there were no children left around because we were all enthusiastic about going to my aunt’s. For a long time in his life, for my old man, those summer days must have been the closest he came to being alone, in silence (which he liked so much) and in calm, considering that he was the father of seven. But I can only see this and say it out loud today.

Over the years, the scene repeated itself: the destination changed — it could be a birthday or a family reunion. The thorn was no longer invisible but began to be uncomfortable as, being older, my interpretation of the events changed. When words were absent, I started to guess what might be happening — and we know how random guessing can be.

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