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.
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.